MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Matthew McConaughey (Ed Pekurny), Jenna Elfman (Shari), Ellen DeGeneres (Cynthia), Woody Harrelson (Ray Pekurny), Martin Landau (Al), Sally Kirkland (Jeanette), Rob Reiner (Dr. Whitaker), Dennis Hopper (Hank), Elizabeth Hurley (Jill), Clint Howard (Ken), Adam Goldberg (Joe)
Ron Howard's "Edtv" is a satire masquerading as a romantic comedy (or is it the other way around?) about a man who willingly allows every moment of his life to be filmed and broadcast live to whoever wants to watch. At first, this premise might sound absurd (which it is), but in today's TV-driven world, it could easily become a reality. With the recent overload in "reality TV," ranging from Fox specials about car crashes to MTV's "The Real World," the time is not far off when everyday people will sit, glued to their sets, watching the moment-by-moment actions and reactions of another everyday person.
There have been other films in recent months that have satirized "Edtv's" themes of undeserved fame and national obsessions over nothing (Woody Allen's over-criticized "Celebrity" jumps to mind). Peter Weir's "The Truman Show" will, of course, garner more comparisons with "Edtv" than any other movie, and in some ways, they are much alike. Both films are warnings about the looming omnipresence of television in our lives and how it has the power to destroy those who become too involved in it. Both films have strong themes about the notion of privacy and dignity being two sides of the same coin, and to take away one is to strip away the other.
However, the difference between the two films is the fact that Ed Pekurny, the everyman whose life is broadcast to the world in "Edtv," chooses his own fate. In "The Truman Show," Truman Burbank was unaware that his life was a national obsession, and therein lies the crucial difference. There is something much darker and more thought-provoking about the world getting its kicks voyeuristically living through another man who has no idea he is being used. In "Edtv," no matter how pathetic the situation gets, no matter how incensed you might be over the television station's poll-driven, ratings-mad, money-obsessed destruction of other people's lives, there is always the fact that Ed chose to do it. He, in effect, brings it on himself.
Matthew McConaughey, perfectly relaxed and scruffy as a transplanted Texan in San Francisco, stars as the sudden celebrity, a simple, 31-year-old video store clerk. The program of which he is the center is the brainchild of Cynthia (Ellen DeGeneres), a struggling program director at the fictitious cable station True TV. Like Dr. Frankenstein, Cynthia thinks she is creating something wonderful, but ends up unleashing a monster that goes out of her control. The fact that the monster is constantly fed and egged on by the station's owner--a heartless cad of a businessman played by Rob Reiner--doesn't help the situation. Once the monster is loose, it becomes a commercial giant, garnered with advertising from huge corporations and discussed by all the talking heads, from Jay Leno to Bill Maher to RuPaul.
As the days stretch into weeks and then into months on "Edtv," the movie itself starts to wear a little thin. Screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, who worked with director Ron Howard ("Apollo 13," "Ransom") on his last comedy, "Parenthood" (1989), throw in enough subplots to drown most of the movie's thematic material.
The most engaging plotline is also the most simple: the romance between Ed and Shari (Jenna Elfman, of TV's "Dharma and Greg"). Ed and Shari become involved even though she is dating Ed's self-absorbed older brother, Ray (Woody Harrelson in an energetic, if sometimes overcooked performance). The fact that their first kiss is filmed in loving close-ups by the trio of cameramen who follow Ed everywhere is something of an omen of things to come. Therefore, it's not surprising (but understandable) that the relationship almost falls apart because Shari cannot handle having her life viewed by the entire nation.
There are also subplots about Ed's voracious mother (Sally Kirkland) and ailing stepfather (Martin Landau, whose understated, dry comic timing is the movie's best asset), and even his real father (Dennis Hopper) who shows up after being missing in action in for almost 20 years. And, that's not all. Ed becomes briefly involved with a sultry British model (Elizabeth Hurley), a ploy set up by the TV station with the sole purpose of increasing ratings (their hot-and-panting make-out session on a dining room table brings up the question of whether "Edtv" is willing to dive into hard-core pornography--alas, the scene is cut short by a comic mishap that is only a little too convenient).
The most interesting thematic element "Edtv" manages to bring up is not so much a social critique of television or those who run it, but the audience who watches it. The movie makes a good point about how the viewers aren't particularly interested in the regular, real aspects of Ed's life, such as his relationship with Shari. Poll ratings in "USA Today" indicate that no one thinks Shari is good enough for him, college guys grumble that she's not "hot" enough, and some people actually to think that she's the weird one because she shies away from the cameras. All this, even though it is plainly clear that Ed and Shari are meant to be together. The viewers would rather see him with a sexy model because sexy models belong on television--everyday people like Shari do not.
Unfortunately, "Edtv" is never quite as good as it probably should have been. It doesn't manage to transcend its surface of mild diversion, and instead comes off as an amusing romantic comedy with an interesting twist. The movie is certainly never boring, and the characters and situations ring true; but, it's not especially memorable either, even though it is plainly obvious that Howard meant for the film to take on a deeper resonance. Peter Weir managed to give "The Truman Show" a surging darkness beneath its unnaturally bright exterior, and it was this dichotomy that gave the film its unnerving power. "Edtv" on the other hand, comes off exactly like its show-within-the-movie was designed to be: pure entertainment.
©1999 James Kendrick