Friday March 26, 1999
Like the television medium it genially satirizes, "EDtv" is a grab bag that's both amusing and frustrating. Simultaneously inspired and contrived, clever and crude, it's an eye-candy riff on a substantial topic, ambitious for Hollywood but only an inch deep--and like most junk food it satisfies for a moment but leaves you hungry almost as soon as it's done.
"EDtv" starts with a cable network called True TV ("We've taken you there, you've laughed, you've cried, you've almost died") that's in trouble. "We're getting our butt kicked by the Gardening Channel," moans program director Cynthia Topping (Ellen DeGeneres). "People would rather watch soil."
Hoping to gain market share and impress the network's head (Rob Reiner), what Topping sets out to do is find "one person, one normal person, and put his life on TV all day long." That fortunate individual turns out to be Ed Pekurney (Matthew McConaughey), a San Francisco video store clerk who becomes so popular that "EDtv," as in "All Ed All the Time," is inflated into a national mania.
If this sounds familiar, it's not because "EDtv," written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, was based on an obscure French-Canadian film called "Louis XIX: Roi des Ondes." Rather it's that many of the themes and issues it deals with were raised in a more interesting and adventurous way by the Jim Carrey-starring "The Truman Show."
The differences in the two films go beyond the basic one that Ed is aware of the cameras and Truman is not. Directed by Ron Howard, "EDtv" is successfully intent on being safe, cheerful and middle of the road. It knows how to entertain, how to make itself pleasing, but, more calculating than Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, it is careful not to attempt anything that might challenge an audience. Laughing freely at sections of "EDtv" is assured, and that is no small thing, but there is a pat quality to other parts that give it an inescapable "Truman Lite" quality.
"EDtv's" smartest move was casting McConaughey as Ed, a beer-drinking Pamela Anderson-T-shirt wearing 31-year-old with no life plan and nothing to look forward to, as his knuckleheaded brother Ray (Woody Harrelson) pointedly puts it, but a lifetime of rearranging "Ernest" tapes.
As no film since his starring role in "A Time to Kill" has, "EDtv" showcases McConaughey's powerful Texas charisma and shows how effective he can be in the right parts. The actor exudes charm and casual sexual attractiveness as the easy-going cable star, and McConaughey's own brushes with the ups and downs of celebrity, one of "EDtv's" themes, no doubt gave the role a special resonance for him.
Ed is in fact so laid-back he doesn't even want to try out for the job that's going to change his life. He gets physically pulled into an audition by careerist brother Ray, who repairs video equipment but considers himself in show business, and, much to Ray's chagrin, gets offered the slot.
Even after he accepts the job at Ray's urging ("How many chances do you and I get?"), Ed is a long time in realizing the ways he's being manipulated and how much chaos being followed around by a camera can cause in his life and the lives of his family and friends.
Soon enough, however, the EDtv camera crew wreaks havoc between Ed and Ray and does extensive damage to the marriage between Ed's mother, Jeanette (Sally Kirkland), and his stepfather, Al (Martin Landau). It also leads to Ed's increasing attraction to Ray's nominal girlfriend and UPS driver Shari ("Dharma & Greg's" Jenna Elfman).
Howard, as always, has a nice touch with actors, and Elfman is especially effective in a role that calls for her to be so potentially unattractive that even RuPaul disses her charms. Unexpected comic moments like the two brothers doing down-home chicken dances are irresistible, and so is Elizabeth Hurley, who deftly satirizes herself in a delicious role as femme fatale Jill, a "model and sometime actress" out to give Ed the romance of his life.
But for every smart move "EDtv" makes there are awkward or just plain ordinary ones on the order of Ed getting hit on the head by a football. It's nice to see a film that understands, as Ed himself eventually does, that TV will eat you alive if you let it, that we live in a culture where celebrity has become, as one character puts it, "a moral good, its own virtue." It's just hard to resist wishing "EDtv" was consistently smarter about making that case.
EDtv, 1999. PG-13 for sex-related situations, partial nudity and crude language. Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment present a Brian Grazer Production. Director Ron Howard. Producers Brian Grazer, Ron Howard. Executive producers Todd Hallowell, Michel Roy, Richard Sadler. Screenplay by Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel. Cinematographer John Schwartzman. Editors Mike Hill, Dan Hanley. Music supervisor Bonnie Greenberg. Costume designer Rita Ryack. Production designer Michael Corenblith. Art director Dan Webster. Set decorator Meredith Boswell. Running time: 2 hour, 3 minutes. Matthew McConaughey as Ed. Jenna Elfman as Shari. Woody Harrelson as Ray. Sally Kirkland as Jeanette. Martin Landau as Al. Ellen DeGeneres as Cynthia. Elizabeth Hurley as Jill.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times