What did I want from EdTV? Well, let’s see. I wanted it to be The Truman Show‘s scrappier, funnier little brother. I wanted Matthew McConaughey to redeem himself after a string of bland roles (tick, tick, Matt … you’re on your fourteenth minute). I wanted Jenna Elfman to break out as a movie actress by being as charismatic and goofily endearing as she often is on Dharma & Greg. Most of all, I wanted Ron Howard to take a vacation from his usual hard-breathing Important Films and get back to his disreputable roots — remember that guy, the one who gave us Michael Keaton in Night Shift and kick-started Tom Hanks’ career in Splash?
With the exception of Elfman, who is the movie’s saving grace, every item on my wish list remains unchecked. EdTV isn’t bad enough to get angry about, but it’s a mundane and toothless satire — a satire whose target, as I’ve said before, is so full of holes by now that it whistles in a strong wind. The media consumes everything! Privacy is dead! You’re nobody unless you’re on TV! This was flat beer even back in 1995, when To Die For told us the same things while congratulating us for being hip to the media. If we’re hip to it, why do we need a movie to underline it?
Ed Pekurny (McConaughey), a 31-year-old video-store clerk, is chosen by the faltering NorthWest Broadcasting Channel to be the star of their new concept, “TrueTV” — a 24-hour live feed of Ed’s everyday activities (except bathroom stuff). The producers of EdTV, a remake of the 1994 French-Canadian film Louis 19, le Roi des Ondes, have sworn their story is worlds apart from The Truman Show, but the only real difference is that Ed is on the air, aware. I’m not an admirer of Truman, but at least it had a streak of spooky paranoia. EdTV has nothing except the predictable ways in which Ed’s privacy is invaded and his life is trashed.
In brief, Truman appeared to be trying a metaphor for the uncertainty of life, whereas EdTV seems to be all about the pains and problems of being a celebrity. Is that why Ron Howard and Matthew McConaughey were attracted to the project? Neither of them brings much to the party. McConaughey is a grinning blank, giving Ed hardly any personality or temperament; he’s just a nice guy, and Ron Howard is in nice-guy mode here, too. Everything points to the banal humanistic message that love and family are more important than fame. They are. Right. Got it. Didn’t need a movie to hammer it home. Howard even backs off from the logical extension of a fully televised life — Ed having sex, which could’ve scored points off of the many live-feed sex web sites out there. Ron Howard seems like a smart and good-hearted man, but will he ever make a movie that truly matters?
Jenna Elfman keeps her head; her Shari, a UPS driver who goes out with Ed’s oafish brother Ray (Woody Harrelson) before falling in love with Ed, is the center of sanity in this vortex. The writers, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, give her almost nothing to do, so Elfman has to pull a warm and funny character out of thin air. And Ellen DeGeneres, as a deadpan exec at the station, does wonders with what amounts to a series of reaction shots. There are many other reaction shots in the movie, of Ed’s faithful fans, who are meant to be us; but we see them laughing hysterically at things we don’t find funny, and the movie begins to feel like a lame sitcom in which the laughtrack echoes depressingly in a vacuum.
EdTV also has the same false ending as The Truman Show — the TV viewers (and we) are tweaked for being voyeurs, but then everyone applauds when Ed gains his freedom. (And no, that isn’t a spoiler. If Ed didn’t get his freedom, it would be a surprise.) Wouldn’t the audience turn on Ed for rejecting them? Or get sick of him long before he left the airwaves? These media-evil movies coddle the audience, as if nothing exploitative would appear on TV if not for those immoral network execs. Ron Howard must know it’s more complex than that — a chicken-egg scenario, the public’s need for sensation and the media’s financial need to fill the public’s need — but he has made yet another satire that pretends the enemy isn’t us.