Couldn’t we please have a moratorium on movies about the soul-sapping and celebrity-mongering ways of television? The Truman Show was bad enough, but then Pleasantville came along, and now here’s the new Ron Howard comedy EDtv. I’ve never been sold on this anti-TV thesis. It’s snooty. It assumes we in the audience have seen the light denied the lower orders. Invariably, the people in these movies who are rendered blotto by the tube are dingbat common folk. EDtv takes this notion to a new low by introducing as its hero a good ol’ boy, Ed Pekurny (a livelier-than-usual Matthew McConaughey). Ed isn’t just the ideal audience for TV pap; he turns out to be the ideal TV celebrity too. His life is transformed into a 24-hour television show by a cable network, and viewers can’t get enough of it. Even when he’s on the potty. His parents (Sally Kirkland and Martin Landau) and everyone else in his orbit get pulled into the media vortex. No one ends up looking good.
The big difference between EDtv and The Truman Show is that Ed knows he’s being filmed and Truman, at least at first, doesn’t. But the net result is the same: These guys want out of the celebrity circus. At first, Ed wants in. His story begins when the program director (Ellen DeGeneres) for the San Francisco-based cable-television documentary channel True TV offers to make him its round-the-clock star after viewing his audition tape. Puttering away at his video-store job, Ed doesn’t have much going on; he accepts the offer and, for a while, can’t get enough of the adulation. He equates the success of the show with a successful life.
It’s part of the film’s game plan that Ed is portrayed as slow on the uptake. For a long time, he doesn’t realize he’s trapped, while we, of course, see it at once. Either way, it’s not remotely believable that Ed’s soap-opera world becomes a national obsession. The makers of EDtv – Howard and screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel – are behind the times: “Reality-based” television isn’t where it’s at anymore. What piques the public isn’t “real” people doing real things. Rather, it’s big shots like, say, the President of the United States, acting real – i.e., screwing up just like us regular folks. And even this is getting old fast.
And so is the notion that in America, we all want to become celebrities. Someone in EDtv is overheard saying, “Nobody wants to be a nobody in America.” This showbiz conceit is the propulsion behind the movie’s moralizings. Only in Hollywood. EDtv gets huffy about stardom, but the high cost of fame is not an issue that burns brightly for most people, many of whom are probably more content than the stars they’re supposed to idolize. The appeal of celebrity-gazing is, after all, essentially vicarious. It delivers the pleasures of being a big cheese without incurring the big-time hassles. Its satisfactions are pretty straightforward. EDtv turns the relationship between audience and celebrity into a compulsive contest between exhibitionist and voyeur. Howard and his writing team began their movie partnership on a pair of terrific comedies, Night Shift and Splash, both eminently un-messagey. But then came Parenthood, a “personal” comedy that was about as personal as a polished sitcom. EDtv has flashes of the trio’s erstwhile knockabout silliness – especially in Landau’s deftly addled performance and some of McConaughey’s pluck – but it strains to be bigger than its preshrunk britches.
Even though the filmmakers are locked into a showbiz worldview, they still sentimentalize Ed’s need to break free from showbiz. In EDtv, you can choose fame, or you can choose heart. Ed loves the limelight until it drives away the amour he was too dense to appreciate. Shari (Jenna Elfman), his sweetie, was initially paired with Ed’s hoot-and-holler brother Ray (Woody Harrelson). Her switch to Ed is seen as a step up in class, but the media hoopla is too much for her – 70 percent of the public polled thinks she’s not good enough for him – and she flees. Coaxed by the network honchos into a fling with a British sexpot (Elizabeth Hurley), Ed begins to hanker for normality, especially when the network’s pitiless CEO, Whitaker (Rob Reiner), makes it clear Ed’s contract is unbreakable. Our TV hero longs to melt into the crowd and into Shari’s embrace. And so EDtv becomes another testament to the powers of true love – even though, if truth be told, Shari is pretty drab.
Love can even quell the siren lure of a Jay Leno or a RuPaul – both of whom appear in the movie. George Plimpton also shows up as himself on a televised roundtable as he rails against Ed’s extravaganza. “It’s a joyous celebration of boobery,” he sniffs, and we’re meant to howl at his snobbery. The film plays it every which way: It makes fun of doofuses but also gets all populist about them. Whitaker refers to his star contemptuously as “Gomer.” Ed shoots back that “we’re not as dumb as you think we are.” Meanwhile, an average-Joe viewer faced with the cancellation of Ed’s show moans, “What do you expect me to do now?”
Even when the film tries to glorify Ed, it ends up belittling him. Here we have a guy who is moving in some pretty fast circles; his world expands beyond the confines of the video store and his ratty apartment. And yet the film doesn’t perceive any upside to fame; ultimately, Ed doesn’t use his newfound clout for anything except undoing his eminence. We’re supposed to see this as heroic – this man of the people walks away from People – but instead he just seems stunted. The best Ed can do with his opportunities is manipulate his way back to boringness. Some victory.