Ty Burr explains why ''The Truman Show'' is a good small movie that suffers from too much hype

Saw ”The Truman Show” the other night. Best Film of the Year! Best Film of the Decade! A Movie That Revolutionizes the Art Form!

Nah, sorry. What it is is a very nice little film that’s smarter than the average bear (i.e., el bloato Hollywood flick) but that also touches on myriad levels of meaning without ever, finally, committing to one. It’s small-scale, a fable, a gratifying bauble ? and intentionally so.

I’m disappointed. Not in the film — it succeeds just fine on its own terms, and you can’t ask more of a movie than that — but in the neurotic media hype machine that has positioned the film as the most mind-boggling cinematic advance since ”Citizen Kane.” Or ”Titanic.” Worse: Is it my imagination, or are the buzz gears spinning faster and more out of control with every season? When a hundred print magazines and TV entertainment shows and syndicated reviewers and websites are all jostling for your attention, it’s no wonder something that smells even remotely good is immediately inflated to the Greatest Ever. But all that noise sort of craps on the actual experience of seeing the movie, doesn’t it?

Want to blame us? Be my guest. After all, Entertainment Weekly did put a big ol’ box on our recent Jim Carrey cover yawping BEST MOVIE OF THE YEAR. On one hand, I’ll defend that as a newsstand-oriented business decision. On the other hand, it characterizes the bandwagoneering that is the most superficial — albeit too often the most visible — aspect of what we do at this magazine.

And in fact the hype machine has many arms, none of which really want to spoil ”The Truman Show” for you but all of which hope to spin your perception to their profit. The movie studios concoct trailers that play as miniaturized versions of the movie itself — down to the climax and wrap-up — on the incredibly cynical, depressingly truthful theory that audiences will only go see what’s familiar. The entertainment-media outlets sniff a story, see a screening, catch the low rumble of buzz, and start planning coverage. Then they hear that all their competition is planning coverage so they rush to be the first. Or if not the first, the loudest. The studios, of course, are happy to shovel coal into the furnace. Some ”critics” rush to get their quotes in the early ads. The tremors reverberate down the media food chain, to the op-ed page, the Leno monologue, the fan website. Sooner or later, Larry King gets into the act. (He’s the guy who said ”Truman Show” ”revolutionized the art form.” But, what, you’re expecting a critical attention span from a man who changes wives faster than I change toothbrushes?)

Then the movie actually gets released — and that’s when things get interesting. Reality kicks in and the backlash begins, both from people who sincerely find the film less than the sum of its hype and from others who beat up on the film precisely because they hate the hype. (Misguided passion aside, can you really blame them?) Let’s take three different recent films that were treated by the media as the second coming of Christ.

  • ”Titanic”: A year of snotty reporting on how director James Cameron is going to take a bath on this one turns, at the eleventh hour, into positive buzz. Still, it’s safe to say that the media — to hype but has no idea how to actually believe — didn’t expect the huge popular response to the film. The result was that the hype ended up trotting after the audience, frantically waving a clutch of Leonardo DiCaprio covers.
  • ”Godzilla”: Hype made completely of the finest Hollywood plastic and swallowed, bait and all, by the press. Oops, the movie stunk. Now we can’t get away from it fast enough. Whose idea was that Matthew Broderick filmography, anyway?
  • ”The Truman Show”: A fairly rare instance of film critics’ hype happily exploited by the studio, magazine editors, and TV producers across the land. It started with an exceptionally canny bit of perceptual tweaking on Paramount’s part: two-page ads in upscale venues like The New York Times, quoting Esquire’s David Thomson — possibly the most highbrow, ”literary” critic since Pauline Kael retired — at length. He called it ”the movie of the decade” and so much for anyone thinking that a Jim Carrey movie had to feature talking tushies. Then the weekly magazines and the TV pundits piled on, all working off the genuinely good buzz coming out of early screenings.
  • Godzilla (Movie - 1998)
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