IT'S FASCINATING to discover who works on TV and who doesn't. Some high-wattage movie stars would be unbearable on the small screen. The ideal TV star is someone unthreateningly attractive, someone charming but relaxed, someone you would lounge on the couch with. Johnny Carson, Jerry Seinfeld, Mary Tyler Moore—they had their sharp edges, enough to keep them from blending in with the wallpaper, but their dominant tone was a smooth, soothing likability.
Ed (Matthew McConaughey) has that quality. He's selected from thousands of audition tapes to be the subject of a 24-hour reality show, one that will document his every breath, belch, and bowel movement on videotape. Cameras follow him to work, to play, and to bed. Things are a bit dull at first, which stirs anxiety in the hearts of the network executives—but when Ed gets involved with his brother's girlfriend (Jenna Elfman), ratings skyrocket and Ed becomes a nationwide fad, wreaking havoc on their relationship and Ed's whole family.
directed by Ron Howard
starring Matthew McConaughey, Jenna Elfman, Woody Harrelson
opens 3/26 at Metro
Like most of Ron Howard's movies, EDtv is remarkable for its utter lack of visual style. Howard leaves no personal imprint on his films; this can be commended as modest craftsmanship or derided as a complete lack of anything resembling sensibility or personal taste. But he has managed to capture the easygoing charm of Matthew McConaughey, a matinee idol who exudes the persona of a good-for-nothing, happily unambitious gas station attendant (or, in the case of EDtv, video store clerk). The most dubious aspect of the movie is that Ed himself remains untainted by his newfound celebrity; amazingly, McConaughey's lazy geniality makes it credible.
Jenna Elfman's popularity has largely mystified me, but she does a fine job here as a young woman who doesn't want to be famous—which, for an actor, is more challenging than playing a schizoid quadriplegic. In fact, the whole cast (almost all of whom are former TV stars) has a superb grasp of the subject at hand. Woody Harrelson, who did many a season on Cheers, is particularly well cast as Ed's crass, desperate-for-success brother. He's perfectly believable as the sibling who, the harder he tries, the less he succeeds. (How exactly did Harrelson become a movie star, anyway?)
Some critics have complained that The Truman Show, Pleasantville, and EDtv are all basically the same, but they're not. The Truman Show, though it had some minor commentary on the media, was fundamentally about free will; Pleasantville, though it too made gestures towards social criticism, explored the meaning of innocence. Both had more in common with fables and parables than television, which was merely a pretext. EDtv, on the other hand, is actually about television and the celebrity it confers. As a result, it's probably a more satisfying movie than either of its compatriots, both of which have some serious flaws (unsurprising, given that thousand-page novels have been written about free will and innocence).
Like successful television, EDtv is committedly lowbrow, unpretentious, and enjoyable. It hits all the standard buttons—all the characters we like get to redeem themselves, while the ones we don't get their comeuppance. It does have some stupid lapses of logic at the end, but it's so chummy and entertaining you like it anyway.