Words you never hear used in conjunction with a Jim Carrey movie:

- "Innovative"- "Touching"

- "Subversive"

- "Intelligent"

- "Important"

But guess what? You'd better get used to hearing those words describe "The Truman Show," Carrey's newest film.

This one's a thoughtful, and thought-provoking, satire that deftly combines comedy with drama, science-fiction and paranoid-conspiracy.

Perhaps no other film since 1976's "Network" has had the potential to inspire such a debate about the effects of the media on our very societal structure.

This extremely well-directed and acted movie works on so many different levels it's astonishing. And just when you think you know where it's going next, it heads in another direction. So when the film begins as a shrewd indictment of our dependence on mass media, you shouldn't be surprised that it ends up meditating on the nature of existence.

Of course, "The Truman Show" still has to find an audience. Because of its challenging nature, the movie could still turn off Carrey's longtime fans, who are more used to seeing him in vulgar, brainless comedies like the "Ace Ventura" movies.

Also, much of the humor is so subtle that it may go over the heads of some audience members.

The plot defies easy description, but suffice to say it's about the subject of the world's first 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week television program - though its main character, naive insurance salesman Truman Burbank (Carrey), doesn't know it's a show, or that all his "friends" and "family" are actors.

Truman gets his first inkling that something may be wrong when he's nearly hit by a stage light that appears to fall straight out of the sky. And though the "coincidence" is explained away, other strange occurences begin adding up, making him question what is real and unreal, and whom he should trust.

Throughout this bout of existential questioning, Truman also finds himself obsessing over a long-lost sweetheart (Natascha McElhone, from "Mrs. Dalloway"), who disappeared mysteriously. And he yearns to discover what lies beyond his hometown.

Meanwhile, the show's megalomaniacal creator, Christof (Ed Harris), has his hands full trying to keep Truman occupied long enough to stall his "escape" attempts.

To say more would spoil the surprises, though there are so many of them that it may require multiple viewings to take them all in.

It doesn't take long to appreciate Carrey's understated lead performance, however. He does have a few characteristic "wacky" moments, but he also demonstrates admirable restraint - due largely to Peter Weir's superb direction and a script that requires him to really act for a change.

Let's just hope audiences will accept this new Jim Carrey, who shows the same potential for drama that Robin Williams did when he was thought of as strictly a comedian.

Though Weir, screenwriter Andrew Niccol ("Gattaca") and Carrey are receiving deserved plaudits, the film wouldn't work as well without the great supporting cast. Harris is terrific in a role that could easily (and disastrously) been played in an over-the-top fashion. Laura Linney and Noah Emmerich, who also play semi-villainous characters, avoid becoming stereotypes and lend their betrayal scenes a creepy sense of ambiguity.

Then there are the mindblowing visuals of Seahaven, the small city/set that was "created" especially for the show - and the final, memorable sequence that brings the story to a satisfying conclusion.

"The Truman Show" is rated PG for scattered profanities, one violent confrontation and brief child nudity.