EdTV
(US 1999)

Starring:
Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Jenna Elfman, Sally Kirkland, Martin Landau, Rob Reiner, Ellen DeGeneres

Director: Ron Howard

Writing credits: Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel

Universal Pictures * 122 minutes


Let's get something straight first off: This is NOT a cheap TRUMAN SHOW ripoff. Ron Howard's EdTV is a witty, funny, poignant, and in places angry observation on the effect of televised fame on an ordinary guy -- told as only a fifty-year-old man who still has people calling him "Opie Cunningham" can do.

Cynthia Topping (Ellen DeGeneres) is a program director for the Northwest Broadcasting Company's flagship "TrueTV" channel which has been, as she says, "losing ground to the Gardening Channel."

In a desperate attempt to boost the station's ratings and save her career, she cultivates a novel idea, a new concept in the history of broadcasting -- putting one ordinary person's life on cable TV 24 hours a day! Unlike the historic PBS documentary on the Loud family, and totally dissimilar to MTV's The Real World, this show will be unscripted, unedited, and unrehearsed. That this concept should be about as interesting as watching paint dry never occurs to her. America is ready to sit in front of the television and watch an ordinary man's life -- live, as it happens -- everything from adjusting his privates as he wakes up to closeups of him clipping his toenails -- all in the name of entertainment.

A quest for the perfect ordinary guy yields Ed Pikurny, who as portrayed by Matthew McConaughey, is boyish, goofy, and a regular guy, who just happens to also have chiseled features, blue bedroom eyes, and perfectly straight movie-star teeth.

Within a week, this none-too-bright video store clerk has become the blockbuster hit of the TV season -- a public obsession and the creator of a new star -- Ed.

Initially, the constant attention is welcomed by this relative loser of a man, but celebrity has its price, and he watches with consternation the predicaments suffered by his loved ones, who automatically become characters in this real-life sitcom/drama, achieving their own fame -- or infamy.

Ed complicates the impact on his family by falling in love with his brother's girlfriend, Shari (Jenna Elfman, yet another blonde, cute, somewhat nervous actress in the Teri Garr mode), thereby alienating his brother (Woody Harrelson, who really does look like he could be McConaughey's brother). Ultimately, he realizes that he's being packaged like processed cheese, and decides to end his life in the limelight, only to meet resistance from the network brass, who have locked him into an ironclad contract. He then must use his admittedly limited ingenuity to find a way out of his ordeal and back to an ordinary life. Because he has by this time become well-schooled in the way television works, he comes up with the only logical method, which I will not reveal to you here.

Finally, Matthew McConaughey, he of the sweetly sloe eyes, Roman nose and aw-shucks Texas charm, has found the right role. After a breakthrough performance in Richard Linklater's 1993 slacker classic DAZED AND CONFUSED and kiss-of-death Vanity Fair cover stardom in 1996 with A TIME TO KILL, McConaughey fell off the map with a series of miscastings in AMISTAD and CONTACT and what should have been, but wasn't a career reviver in THE NEWTON BOYS. Legend has it that he turned down the role of Cal in James Cameron's TITANIC in favor of another lawyerly turn in AMISTAD, which if true, means he should be pelted with rotten tomatoes, if only for the net result of perpetrating Billy Zane on an unsuspecting public.

McConaughey might not have a lot of range, but no one in the business is better at being a sweet and earnest good ol' boy. Sporting a strange Ryan Phillippe blond dye job, a four-or-so-day stubble, and a few more crows-feet than last time we saw him, he makes Ed the kind of lovable loser that audiences are bound to cheer.

Woody Harrelson looks buff and fit as Ed's more extroverted gym rat brother in a secondary role. Jenna Elfman is adquate, but nothing more as Shari, Ed's girlfriend. I hadn't seen her in anything prior to this, not being a "Dharma and Greg" fan, but her uncanny resemblance to Fanny Brice made me yearn to write a biopic screenplay of the late Ziegfeld entertainer for her. Sally Kirkland is, well, Sally Kirkland, as Ed's mother, and Martin Landau, who has made a career of late out of playing Old Jews, is yet another one here, somehow stuck into this trailer-trash family as Ed's adored stepfather Al. He's hilarious, and has better comic timing than any of the others.

A completely gratuitious side subplot involves a liaison with a model (played, in a complete stretch, by Elizabeth Hurley). Perhaps never before in film has a woman so beautiful seemed so unattractive, as she shamelessly uses Ed's stardom to promote her own career. A shot of Ed arriving at her apartment only to be greeted by a throng of thousands of voyeurs and well-wishers is like a horny young man's pressure-filled nightmare.

For some reason, directors of recent comedies have felt it necessary to include a scene of totally gratuitous, mood-breaking melodrama, and this film is no exception, in an epiphany involving Al and his putative son. I could see little purpose for this, except to allow McConaughey to reprise the heartstoppingly sweet, misty-eyed, adorable bit that made him, at least briefly, the Next Hot Hunk in A TIME TO KILL, when he sat on the rubble of his burnt-out house mourning his lost dog.

A more interesting characterization is Rob Reiner as Whitaker, the head of the TrueTV network. On this character, screenwriters Ganz and Mandel team up with director Ron Howard to vent some spleen. For all that Reiner has perhaps the funniest lines in the film, he is an ugly, nasty character, with no redeeming qualities. Who would have thought that Ron Howard -- Opie, Richie Cunningham, the wholesome guy from AMERICAN GRAFFITI, could be so angry? Ellen DeGeneres, as the program director/mastermind, is mildly amusing, as she gradually finds herself becoming not just Ed's confidante, but a fan herself.

A fun side activity in going to movies these days is counting cameos, and EdTV is chockablock with them. The ubiquitous George Plimpton makes his obligatory appearance, branding the Ed obsession as "a joyous celebration of boobery" on a NIGHTLINE-like talk show hosted by Harry Shearer. Also making appearances are Michael Moore, Merrill Markoe, Bill Maher, Jay Leno (who seems to cameo in every comedy made these days), and even old Howard bud Donny (now Don) Most makes a brief appearance. But my favorite bit player, and I wished he'd had more to do, is from the always fun (and here uncredited) Gedde Watanabe, as a production assistant.

I had expected EdTV to be a pale imitation of THE TRUMAN SHOW, but it proved to be a pleasant surprise -- a well-paced, well-acted, effective comedic study of the cult of celebrity.

- Jill Cozzi



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