Universal, 1999
Directed by Ron Howard


By Jason Rothman

We want it real. Movies are praised for being "realistic." Reality-based TV shows (When Postal Workers Attack Rabid Dogs) score big ratings for Fox. The American public -- Pamela Anderson's anatomy aside -- hates anything phony. We're so cynical, we don't like our entertainment gods to put anything past us. So, it's ironic a movie like EDtv would make a fictional movie about our thirst for reality. Not that there aren't plenty of ideas to explore when it comes to our obsession to "keep it real." But EDtv, pathetically, only scratches the surface, failing to leave a mark.

Matthew McConaughey, plays Ed, a 31-year old San Francisco video store clerk chosen by a reality-show cable channel to have his entire life broadcast live 24-7. "EDtv" will top Mtv's The Real World, its producers promise, because there will be no editing, no commercials -- just All-Ed-All-The-Time.

Suddenly Ed's whole world is the talk of dinner table and college dorm conversations all across America. For starters, there's Ed's opportunistic brother, Ray. In a brilliant bit of casting, Ray is played by Woody Harrelson. (The first time I saw a picture of Matt McConaughey, I mistakenly thought he was Woody Harrelson.) Their resemblance is so remarkable, the only thing more remarkable is that it's taken this long for somebody to cast them as brothers. Then, just when you thought you couldn't see any better casting, Dennis Hopper shows up as Ed's father. Sally Kirkland, as Ed's dysfunctional mom, and Martin Landau, as Ed's step-father, make-up the rest of the family (Landau delights in a role that requires him to sacrifice all dignity). Jenna Elfman from TV's Dharma & Greg brings her weird eyebrows to the role of Ed's girlfriend.

As it starts to unfold, and as Ed's friends and family all suffer invasions of privacy, the movie seems like it's going to be about the repercussions of a world with no secrets. But when that idea goes nowhere, the film meanders into an accurate, but less-than-insightful satire of the nature of celebrity. See Ed get mobbed by fans, see Ed acquire a stalker, see Ed start a dance craze, see Ed go on Leno and demonstrate the dance craze. The film does a pretty dead-on job of portraying Ed's 15-minutes. McConaughey, who himself shot to overnight stardom when he landed the lead role in A Time to Kill, knows what Ed is going through, but he isn't able to give the audience much of a clue here. Ed remains a mystery.

Backstage at the Tonight Show, Ed meets a stunning British model-turned actress, played by British model-turned actress Elizabeth Hurley. If the film were really as clever as it wants to be, it would have named her character "Elizabeth Hurley." Because she's essentially playing herself, there's no reason not to do just that, and it would have been a smart way to further explore the film's reality/fantasy dichotomy. Instead, they call her, "Jill." When viewers respond more favorably to Jill, it's not long before the network execs are angling to have her replace Ed's current girlfriend. Suddenly, it seems the movie might be ready to make an important statement about how "real" these reality-based shows really are. But no such luck.

It's too bad, because the script by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel does have some genuinely good laughs. The pair (who wrote City Slickers, Multiplicity and Parenthood), are experts at poking fun at everyday life, layer the yuks nicely. Especially funny is a sequence where a huge crowd of fans roots Ed on as he goes to Jill's apartment for a date where he's been promised sex.

Finally, the only significant thing the movie has to say is the rather stale observation that being famous isn't as fun as it looks. So were left with the sad realization that once again, director Ron Howard has screwed-up. Ol' Richie Cunningham is a fine craftsman, but he has a frustrating knack of tackling movies about big subjects and dropping the ball. The films he makes -- whether they're about astronauts, fire fighters or fathers -- all have the potential to be Bold Statements, but Howard has yet to knock one out of the park. At one point in EDtv a character makes the sharp observation that people no longer are celebrities because they are special, but that they are special because they are celebrities. For a moment, it feels like the film may actually reach an epiphany, but instead, Howard laughs off the statement as the musings of a pretentious fool. He's afraid to go for the jugular.

But it's not like Howard had a prayer to begin with. Anything EDtv had to say has already been said better by The Truman Show. Since EDtv is a remake of a French film, it would be redundant to slam it for being unoriginal. Still, because of the similarities, one feels compelled to note that the Jim Carrey film is superior in every single way (ironically though, Harry Shearer plays a talk show host in both films). In fact, with other films like Reality Bites and S.F.W. already littering our memories and with people cybercasting their everyday lives all over the web, EDtv comes off as pretty darn trite.

On a trivial note: If you waste your time with this movie, check out Ron Howard's old Happy Days buddy Don Most (Ralph Malph) in a small role as a network executive.

(c) Copyright 1999

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