Jim Carrey proved he could play it straight (well, at least a portion of the time) as a family man in Liar Liar, his 1997 comedy blockbuster. With The Truman Show, the elastic-faced, loose-limbed dynamo shows he can also be as serious as needed, in the title role of this imaginative tale of an electronic-age guinea pig. Screenwriter Andrew Niccol, whose directing debut, Gattaca, cautioned against the potential tyranny of genetic advances, again finds reasons for paranoia in technological progress, as an innocent named Truman Burbank becomes the unknowing, all-consuming subject of a 24-hour television network. Niccol's unconventional fable is superbly realized by director Peter Weir (Fearless, Dead Poets Society, Witness), who fashions a disorienting visual style to fit the artifice and pent-up anxiety of Truman's world.

Niccol and Weir shrewdly immerse the audience in this oddly cheerful environment, without immediate explanations of what's really going on behind its sunny fa‡ade. Truman lives with his wholesome wife Meryl (Laura Linney) in a picture-perfect house in the squeaky-clean island community of Seahaven, where he works for a large insurance firm. His days pass by uneventfully, until a series of incidents shake him out of his complacency: A huge piece of lighting equipment falls out of the sky. A homeless man appears who looks just like Truman's dead father. Strange radio transmissions, like stage directions, come out of his car radio. For the first time, Truman begins to suspect that something is rotten in Seahaven.

Nearly halfway through the film, we learn the truth: Since birth, Truman has been watched by a phalanx of hidden cameras, his every waking move transmitted to an increasingly addicted, international television audience. Seahaven is actually the world's largest studio set; the sky, the ocean, the stars and the sunsets are fakes, and the weather is controlled by outside forces. What's more, everyone Truman encounters in his daily routine is an actor-even his wife and his best friend Marlon (Noah Emmerich) are on the payroll. This enormous charade is the handiwork of Christof (Ed Harris), a megalomaniacal conceptual artist who sees nothing wrong with the mass-appeal social experiment he's concocted. Christof has kept Truman from puncturing the boundaries of his world by staging a childhood boating accident in which the boy's father apparently drowned; Truman has been deathly afraid of the water ever since. The other key incident in Truman's life was unplanned-a budding romantic affair with a 'college student' who tried to spill the secret of Seahaven, but was suddenly sent away to the island of Fiji (or so Truman believes).

The Truman Show begins just before this fantasy world begins to crumble, following a long and profitable run for Christof and his network backers. Niccol cannily maintains our involvement throughout, first by keeping the action shrouded in mystery, then by giving us a strong rooting interest in Truman's poignant quest for identity and freedom. It's an ideal role for Carrey: Truman's freakish situation offers him several dramatically valid opportunities to cut loose in the patented Carrey fashion, while maintaining the essential humanity of this socially deprived Everyman. In career terms, the part of Truman Burbank is an important turning point for this gifted comedian.

The Truman Show strains credibility, however, in its cynical view of a world that embraces what is, after all, a rather cruel and disturbing experiment. Granted, the daily spectacle of audiences cheering brawls and fistfights on 'The Jerry Springer Show' proves we haven't come far from the Roman Coliseum era, and the public's salacious interest in scandals ranging from O.J. to JonBenet Ramsey reveals a whopping insensitivity to personal tragedy. But The Truman Show, despite its attempt to put an upbeat final-act spin on its hero's struggle, takes it as a given that the world would look in on Truman's unwitting imprisonment without much more than a few scattered protests.

This one important caveat aside, Weir and Niccol have come up with a bracingly original cinematic experience, an eerie but entertaining vision of one man's struggle against a high-tech Big Brother he doesn't even know exists. Dennis Gassner's hermetically sealed production design and Peter Biziou's resourceful cinematography make a perfect fit with Weir's lively, lyrical directing style. It may be Jim Carrey's show, but he shares the bill with some equally daring high-wire walkers.

--Kevin Lally