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Ron Howard's satirical jab at TV is good--just don't confuse it for The Truman Show

EdTV (1999)
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jenna Elfman, Ellen DeGeneres, Woody Harrelson, Martin Landau, Sally Kirkland, Rob Reiner, Dennis Hopper, and Elizabeth Hurley
Screenplay: Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, based on a screenplay by Michel Poulette (Louis 19, le roi des ondes)
Producers: Brian Grazer and Ron Howard
Director: Ron Howard
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sex-related situations, partial nudity, and crude language

Let's get this out of the way first: EdTV looks a lot like The Truman Show. Or at least the trailers make it look that way. Of course, this same controversy was brought up when Pleasantville was released just months after The Truman Show (forget the fact that it was in production long before The Truman Show). Not only was Pleasantville more cheerful, it was a superior film. Now comes EdTV, also seemingly inspired by that Jim Carrey vehicle. And again, this can be debunked when one realizes that both EdTV and The Truman Show were in production at about the same time.

So this all comes to one question: how does EdTV rate? From a critical perspective, it's nowhere near the caliber of either The Truman Show or Pleasantville. It's also not as focused or sharp as it should have been. But from an entertainment point of view, it can't be denied that EdTV is in top-form. From the opening moments of corporate advisors discussing why a live television show would be good to the final moments of corporate advisors discussing who has a prosthetic penis, EdTV succeeds on its most very basic level. After all, here is a film that wants to entertain viewers, and it does so, using and reinventing every cliche in the book.

EdTV begins at the headquarters of TrueTV, a small cable network whose ratings are losing to the gardening channel. "People would rather watch dirt than us," one exec says. Cynthia Topping (Ellen DeGeneres) comes up with the idea to follow one man around 24-hours a day, 7-days a week. At first, Jim Whitaker (Rob Reiner), head honcho of TrueTV, is baffled by the idea--why would anyone want to watch a normal guy do normal stuff unedited? The answer lies in what Hitchcock explored in many of his films: people like to watch. We are all natural born voyeurs, and the Internet has been a breeding ground for us to satisfy those voyeuristic urges. Webcams such as Sean Patrick Live or JenniCam are quite popular, allowing normal people to look into the lives of other people, uncut and totally live.

Whitaker finally warms up to the idea after seeing Ed Pekurny (Matthew McConaughey), a video store clerk with bare-minimum education. Ed signs the contract, as does his family, and the cameras are set up. At first, the show is a bomb, with people tuning in just to keep their kids distracted. The first image is of Ed in bed, scratching himself. As expected, everyone that knows him is embarrassed, especially his brother Ray (Woody Harrelson) who got Ed to audition for the show in the first place. "Good morning... I'm Ed," he states slyly to the camera. And here is where The Truman Show and EdTV differ: the former has a man raised on a studio set, unknowing of the TV show starring himself, the latter has a man who knows the cameras are there.

Quickly, the show becomes a hit, as Americans tune in to watch with fascination. The show launches into success when family drama arises. Ray's girlfriend Shari (Jenna Elfman) admits that she has always been infatuated with Ed, kissing him live on TV. Unfortunately, Shari hates the exposure, learning that everyone in America thinks Ed should dump her for someone else. That someone else is Jill (Elizabeth Hurley), a gorgeous model who just happens to show up at a football game with Ms. Topping's dog. Jill obviously doesn't care for Ed--she likes the prestige of being a celebrity's girlfriend and that's about it. During the act of sex, she seems to relish the fact that the camera is watching her. This act is cut short when he accidentally falls off a table and lands on her cat.

Soon enough, Ed himself becomes tired of having the cameras follow him around. And, by the third act of the film, so do we. Unbelievably, halfway through the film, the story begins to wander aimlessly through plot convention after plot convention. What is so aggravating is that there are so many different ways to end the film, and instead of taking a more intelligent route, the screenwriters run out of steam. Where the first half of the film is a rather sharp satire of Americans' obsession with celebrity and exposure, the final half turns into a cheap romantic comedy that doesn't work as well as it should. When Ed decides he wants to quit, the film should end there, since so many logical possibilities would allow Ed to freely leave. But Ed, being the dimwit that he is, can't figure out what those possibilities are.

The film's two saving graces, which elevate the film from beyond the merely adequate level, are its director and actors. Ron Howard has shown his skill behind the camera before, with such hits as the suspenseful Ransom and the Academy-Award nominated Apollo 13. Here, he continues to improve his skills, bolstered by impressive camerawork and smart decisions in the editing room. One shocking element is the lack of music during dramatic moments. As the events of "EdTV" play out, Howard adds realism by leaving out a musical underscore. It's an unusual feat and yet works quite well. Howard tries desperately to make the film plausible at every turn, but all realism is thrown out the window as Ed lands on Jill's cat. After that, the film takes a nosedive, entering a world of sheer absurdity.

Matthew McConaughey is one of those actors who makes you believe he's a talented actor. In reality, he's not--he consistently plays every character with the same Southern drawl and slow-mannered attitude. Yet, his screen charisma overrides his lack of talent, and we begin to believe in McConaughey as an everyday person. It's an unforced charm that works here. Jenna Elfman, who has made a name for herself playing Dharma on TV's Dharma and Greg, shows up McConaughey in every scene. Elfman is a talented comedic actress, and here she displays a dramatic side that many people haven't been witness to. Woody Harrelson is Woody Boyd here (you know, from Cheers). It's not much of a stretch for Harrelson, though we know he can act (remember The People vs. Larry Flynt?). He's really just a waste of talent here. Sally Kirkland and Martin Landau are wonderfully outrageous here--particularly Landau, who gives one of the film's greatest lines ("I'd yell for your mother, but... I'd die."). Ellen DeGeneres is one of the most talented comedic actresses in recent years, and yet she's never really had a film role that's done her justice. Even here, she seems rather confined within the role. Rob Reiner is funny, though it's hard to view him as a mean person. And of course, Elizabeth Hurley, playing a smart, self-obsessed model with relish. Too bad she is given little screen time.

EdTV is rated PG-13 for sex-related situations, partial nudity, and crude language. Certainly, no one will be comparing this film to the brilliant satire of The Truman Show or Pleasantville, but it is entertaining enough to watch. While it seems rather dull as a satire of the media, it strikes it rich with an often hilarious look into one man's dull life, changed overnight. This is one time when I will say that a film is too commercialized for its own good. There's no controversy here--just fluff.

*** out of ****

Reviews by Boyd Petrie
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