EDtv

Before director Ron Howard buries the satire in a blanket of bland, Edtv takes some well-aimed comic swats at reality television. Sure, the topic is overworked: The Truman Show targeted intrusive programming like UPN's new Redhanded, which uses hidden cameras to catch subjects off-guard. Edtv, echoing MTV's Real World, reveals an America where "nobody wants to be nobody" and subjects line up to have their privacy invaded for a brush with fame.

Ed Pekurny, the affable San Francisco video-store clerk played by Matthew McConaughey, wakes up one morning, scratches his balls and realizes there's a camera aimed right at him. No tricks. Ed willingly signed on with the True TV network to make his life a public spectacle. This is Day One, and living with a three-man video crew takes getting used to. Albert Brooks' seminal Real Life, a documentary parody that predates Edtv by twenty years, has a character — nearing mental collapse — who begs the cameras to back off: "I want to be alone," comes the plea. Says Brooks: "OK, can we come with you?"

Ed is clearly in for it. But why choose Ed in the first place? Cynthia Topping (Ellen DeGeneres), a program director at True TV, thinks the world needs an unscripted, unedited look at the life of a fuckable average Joe. Never mind that Ed, 31, spends his days cataloging Ernest movies and his nights swilling beer with his blowhard brother, Ray (Woody Harrelson). Hell, Cynthia is desperate. True TV is even losing ratings to the Garden Channel. "People prefer watching soil to us," says Cynthia. She figures that if Ed acts like an asshole, it will boost the ratings and increase the ads that run at the bottom of the screen.ne of Howard's inspirations in crafting a film about a flavor of the month is casting it with flavors of months past. Take McConaughey, who was built up so much as the next big thing before anyone saw him in A Time to Kill that he suffered a hype backlash. Now, as Ed, this Texas-born actor has a snug-fit role that accentuates his scruffy charm.

Edtv brims over with comic surprises from other actors you may have written off. DeGeneres, prime time's first star lesbian, stirs up tart mischief as the TV exec who finds a conscience. Harrelson, often typecast as the dim-bulb good ol' boy he played on Cheers, uncovers a tough core of resilience in Ray. Elizabeth Hurley — she plays an ambitious actress more than willing to screw Ed on camera for the exposure — displays a brand of sass not usually found in babes known for pitching cosmetics. And Jenna Elfman — ditzy to the point of distraction on Dharma and Greg — is persuasively smart, shy and vulnerable as Shari, the unlucky-in-love UPS driver who captures Ed's heart.

Howard brings out unexpected strengths in a first-rate cast that also includes Sally Kirkland as Jeanette, mom to Ed, Ray and Marcia (Viveka Davis); Martin Landau as Al, Jeanette's wheelchair-bound second husband; and Dennis Hopper as Hank, her first husband, who deserted the family and is now back to cash in.

All humiliations are exploited on the show as Ed becomes a national obsession and his love life crumbles along with his family relationships. Not for long, though. This being a Ron Howard movie, with a script by his longtime collaborators Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Parenthood, Splash), conflict is resolved before the fade-out. Is it so wrong that the family turns the tables on the evil network empire? Not if you're satisfied with the quick fix that Howard applies to complex issues. Edtv is a very funny movie, but its laughs don't resonate. It may be that Howard, a former child star, is too eager to please. Though his best films flirt with dark themes like failure (Apollo 13), old age (Cocoon) and pride (Ransom), there's no follow-through. Edtv hints at flaws in the American character, but Howard, 45, won't mature as a filmmaker until he stops sending audiences home mindlessly happy.

From The Archives Issue 810: April 15, 1999