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by Mike McGranaghan

Walking into EDtv, I wondered what the point of this movie was. After all, the plot (a man's every waking moment is broadcast on national television) had just been done last summer in the brilliantly paranoid film The Truman Show, which was on my list of the year's 10 best films. Somehow, after a recent spell in which we've had two movies about asteroids heading toward earth, two movies about computer-generated bugs, two movies about World War II, and two movies in which Queen Elizabeth was a character, EDtv seemed like just the latest case of cinematic deja vu. Then, about 15 minutes into the movie, my mind changed. Despite the fact that this concept has already been done, EDtv puts a different slant on the material to make it work.

The specific plot begins when a television exec (Ellen DeGeneres) gets an idea for her ratings-challenged "reality" channel. She convinces her higher-ups to hold an audition to find a person whose life can be televised 24 hours a day. The kicker, she claims, is that the person doesn't even have to be good; after all, what's more interesting to watch than a disaster? The winner is a good old boy named Ed (Matthew McConaughey) who works in a video store and idolizes Burt Reynolds. Ed does a final audition for the TV execs in which he talks about his life and his highly dysfunctional family. It's clear that this guy will put on a show. He gets the job.

Almost as soon as the cameras start rolling, Ed's life changes. He begins trying to woo his sleazy brother's ex-girlfriend Sheri (Jenna Elfman). Meanwhile, that brother (Woody Harrelson) tries to use Ed's newfound stardom to his own advantage. The problem is that nothing goes easily when the whole world is watching. Ed can hardly walk down the street without being followed by "fans," and newspapers take polls to decide whether Sheri is "good enough" for him. The constant media scrutiny begins to tear Ed's life apart.

The big difference between EDtv and The Truman Show is that the central character knows he's on TV here. Sometimes the cameras are intrusive, while other times he uses them to his advantage. The movie explores the idea of how your behavior changes when you know you're being watched. EDtv thus becomes a solid companion piece to Truman, a look at the other side of the coin. Given the rise of "reality" shows like MTV's "The Real World," I think it's interesting to look at the phenomenon from both angles. It's a subject worth exploring and although Truman is by far the better film, this one is effective in its own way.

Much of the humor comes from the idea of people doing inappropriate things on live television (the very first image America sees of Ed is sidesplittingly hysterical). But there is a point as well. As one character says: "People used to be famous because they were special. Now they're special because they're famous." If you doubt this, just remember that Monica Lewinsky went to many of the big Oscar parties. Ed is a guy who is famous for being famous. Nothing about his life is particularly interesting. But because he is on TV, he becomes a cult hero. In our culture, that's enough.

EDtv has some subplots involving Ed's family, most of which are contrived and take our focus off what's really interesting - watching Ed's life as it morphs into something very public. What holds the movie together during the rough patches is the performance of Matthew McConaughey, giving what I think is his best performance to date. He manages to be totally compelling playing a guy who is utterly boring. Mentally, Ed is someone you wouldn't want to watch a TV show about. He's not very bright, not very complex, not very stimulating beyond his cocky smile. But emotionally, the guy affects you in a big way. There's a little spark inside him that keeps you hooked. I don't know how McConaughey pulled off this mixture of dullness and charisma, but it works magic on the film. Just look at Ed's final audition to see what I mean. The actor registers great charm while saying the least interesting of things. He could sell refrigerators to Eskimos.

Directed by Ron Howard, EDtv has something of interest to say about the nature of worthless celebrity. The point builds to a fever pitch when Ed attempts to have "spontaneous" sex with a beautiful model (Elizabeth Hurley) while TV cameras circle them madly. It is the moment when the broadcast becomes about itself; the event becomes the event. Somehow, watching someone else's life becomes more interesting than living one's own. Howard plays the scene to the hilt in a frenzy of camera movement and comic pacing. It's the best scene in a movie that could have used a few more like it. Still, the picture works well enough to recommend. EDtv made me think a little and laugh a lot.

( out of four)

EDtv is rated PG-13 for crude humor, language, and sexual situations. The running time is 2 hours and 3 minutes.

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