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movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: EDtv

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jenna Elfman
Director: Ron Howard
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 122 Minutes
Release Date: March 1999
Genres: Comedy, Romance

*Also starring: Woody Harrelson, Sally Kirkland, Martin Landau, Ellen DeGeneres, Rob Reiner, Dennis Hopper, Elizabeth Hurley, Adam Goldberg

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

In a film that is perfectly watchable but will probably disappear from audience memory within three hours of its conclusion, "EDtv" takes off where "The Truman Show" and "Pleasantville" left off. Bearing none of the creative juices that made the two 1998 films striking to viewers, "EDtv" suffers from predictability, a narrow imagination, and a final payoff that is so limp (literally so, in fact) that you'll wonder how highly-paid screenwriters could fail to come up with a more convincing outcome. "Edtv" is about an ordinary guy with a sexy Texan drawl and a goofy but photogenically friendly face who is catapulted to prominence at the whim of a TV producer and his program director.

A pundit who could have been inspired by Confucius or Buddha once commented on the irony of such fame. You spend a good part of your youth trying to achieve it, he said, and the rest of your life hiding from the public behind shades and other disguises. Celebrity status has its privileges but exacts a price. Your privacy is shot, you're hounded for autographs wherever you go, and as Ron Silver pointed out in the stage play "And," you cringe every time someone gets into your face with the banal reflection, "I love your work." In "EDtv," which is based partially on a French movie which no one has seen, "The King of the Airwaves," an ordinary Joe Sixpack is offered fifteen metaphoric minutes of fame, goes for the deal, but backs out with fourteen minutes to go in his contract. Just plain Ed (Matthew McConaughey) discovers what most of us eventually will realize--that you shouldn't ask too strongly for what you want: you may get it. The champagne he swims in when he becomes king of the airwaves turns to sour grapes when the public repeatedly invades his privacy, undermines his dignity, causes a rift between him and his brother, and even threatens to break up the relationship between his mother and the stepdad he adores.

Directed as a conventional narrative by Ron Howard--who teams up with his regular scripters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel)--"EDtv" opens on a meeting at a failing cable TV network as program director Cynthia (Ellen DeGeneres) works hard to convince her boss, Whitaker (Rob Reiner) to air a show that might get a better rating than the local Gardening Channel. Inspired by an actual documentary broadcast some twenty years ago by PBS about the Loud family, Cynthia's idea is for a twenty-four hour coverage of an ordinary American with no editing, no professional actors, and no commercials save for a regular, printed bulletin at the bottom of the screen touting a host of nationally-known products. The only provision for privacy is that the camera would not enter the subject's bathroom and would refuse to catch footage of his sexual activities. After interviewing several candidates for this last-ditch attempt at good ratings, the network team goes with Ed Pekurny (Matthew McConaughey), a goofy video store clerk in his early thirties who lives in San Francisco and has the potential for national appeal because of his openness, honesty, and vulnerability. After an unpromising introduction which features Ed engaging in no more adventurous action shots than brushing his teeth, the show picks up dramatically when its star makes a play for his own brother's girl friend, Shari (Jenna Elfman), to the obvious displeasure of Ed's sibling, Ray (Woody Harrelson). As people everywhere hound the new celebrity sensation for autographs and as the ubiquitous cameras hone in on Ed's relationship with his mother, his stepdad and his biological father, Ed feels he is simply being used--that the network cares not a whit for the poor man's dignity but actually thrives on his pratfalls, the family frictions and the wrenches the ever-present camera people throw into his most intimate relationships.

Director Ron Howard may want to expose the evils of the big bad media, but considering the sums of money promised to the new star, we can hardly sympathize with Ed's complaints. Whereas the film could have shown us how the corporations lead us on with bold promises of generous treatment and then throw us away when we are used up, we're treated to the very opposite concept: it is Ed, and not the communications industry, who wants out. The station is not only willing but insistent on keeping its hero in the national spotlight and showering him with bonuses. And where Howard may wish us to question our addiction to TV-- our compulsion to watch absolutely anything that moves across the screen--he shows us a program which is so dynamic, so vibrant and appealing, that you can't blame the American people for staying glued to the screen. Contrary to the usual cynical notions about the tube, the program known as EDtv is a quality offering that subtitutes honest emotions and real love for the phony, soap-opera scripts of the daytime lineups.

As a result, we're not clear what we're supposed to believe. Are we meant to feel that the public will feast on just anything that crosses the screen, or that television can rescue itself from banality by conjuring up unique programs like EDtv? Are the people who watch this show lampooned as folks without standards, or are they praised for rejecting the usual, unimaginative presentations in favor of something innovative?

Working with a script that is conventional and lacking a clear purpose, Matthew McConaughey turns in an impressive performance as an often bemused Everyman, but the best lines go to Martin Landau as stepdad Al, an infirm old man confined to a wheelchair and dependent for oxygen on an inhaler, who comes up with such dry-humored gems as "I've got to take a pee...wish me luck." But the gorgeous Elizabeth Hurley in the role of Jill--who feigns an interest in Ed in order to land a role as a model or actress--looks at the camera so often when initiating a tryst that you wonder whether Ron Howard trusts his audience to know her real motivation unless she mugs for the lens in the most obvious way. Woody Harrelson's fine as Ed's envious brother, Ray, in the sort of good-old-boy role that suits his temperament, but Ellen DeGeneres, as program director Cynthia, is oddly meant to come across in the final analysis as a hero when in fact she is the one who initiates the indignities. Watch Jenna Elfman closely and speculate on whether she is doing her darndest to clone Renee Zellweger.

The artistic and commercial success of "The Truman Show" and "Pleasantville" is bound to spawn additional attempts to cash in, but as the first such bid "EdTV," is entertaining but as it does not genuinely explore its implications, it is bereft of anything that could elevate it to something more.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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