The Whole World Is Watching -- A Newly Subtle Jim Carrey Leads A Life Under Surveillance In `The Truman Show'

Movie review XXX 1/2 "The Truman Show," starring Jim Carrey, Ed Harris, Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone. Directed by Peter Weir, from a screenplay by Andrew Niccol. Rated PG. Running time: 104 minutes.

The "Seinfeld" finale aside, there isn't much that television has to offer anymore that can gather a truly massive audience for a unifying experience. The sheer number of specialized cable channels has broken up the old, homogenous TV viewer base into many niche audiences, thus diminishing the power of the tube to conduct shared emotions all over the globe.

Yet the dazzlingly original "The Truman Show" - probably the only movie that could bring the imaginative director Peter Weir ("Fearless") and comic Jim Carrey together - proposes a very different vision of our media age, one in which all of humanity is enthralled for some 30 years by the same television program. That program is "The Truman Show" (yup, Weir's film and the show-within-the-film have the same title), a reality-TV concept encased in a world of fictional trappings.

Conceived and orchestrated by a TV producer named Christof (Ed Harris), "The Truman Show" focuses on the life of sweet-natured Truman Burbank (Carrey), who doesn't realize he has grown up inside an enormous studio filled with thousands of concealed cameras.

Virtually everything Truman has experienced since boyhood, from family tragedy to the "spontaneous" incident in which he meets his

future wife, has been carefully scripted, fleshed out by actors, and viewed by a worldwide audience. The few times Truman has acted on spontaneous feeling - such as his youthful courtship of a girl (Natascha McElhone) of whom Christof doesn't approve - his pain is exploited as convenient drama and he is robbed of self-determining opportunities.

Now in his early 30s, all that Truman knows is that he has never left his serene little island town, Seahaven (actually a huge set under an artificial sky), that he has a perfect marriage to "Meryl" (Laura Linney), that his best friend is "Marlon" (Noah Emmerich), and that he has a "job" as an insurance salesman.

But Truman is not without his suspicions that something is very artificial about his existence, and his restlessness grows as evidence mounts that he is not in control of his destiny. Screenwriter Andrew Niccol ("Gattaca"), for all his ingenuity in dreaming up this story, wisely makes Truman's sense of inauthenticity the emotional bottom line of this film. Take away the element of the fantastic, and "The Truman Show" - the film, that is - has some important things in common with Frank Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life," another story about a small-town fellow who feels cheated out of his dreams.

But Niccol and Weir aren't content with such obvious comparisons. Their images become increasingly more surreal (the actor-residents of Seahaven walking arm-in-arm while searching for a missing Truman), the story more mythic (Christof demonstrating his anger by manufacturing storms and swollen seas in the mock-Earth studio), the stakes of Truman's quest for identity more elemental.

The film free-associates past its own sometimes sentimental gimmick into existential satire, surrealist revelation, even religious inquiry.

By the third act - which culminates in a dreamy vision as startling as a Magritte painting - the allegorical possibilities pile up. Could "The Truman Show" actually be about our hunger for sustaining icons and faith? Could it be an editorial about the ways in which media titans seem to have become our collective parents, determining not only what we see and hear, but how we feel about it? Or could it be a stunning variation on the Eden story, with Christof a possessive God and Truman a naive Adam who comes to yearn for his fall from Paradise?

The answers are yes, yes, yes, and then some. When all is said and done, "The Truman Show" achieves a kind of beauty through its overlaying enigmas, and Carrey - finally liberated from the burden of dork comedy - looks like a rare, comic Everyman in the tradition of Chaplin.

This is a film that can stay with one for a very long time, and even slightly change the way one looks at life and the world. That's not just the hallmark of a good film - it's also a gift.