EDtv (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

JenniCam. August Live. BaddGrrl Live. GiggleCam. These are just a few examples of one of the Internet's hottest commodities: cam sites - web pages designed by exhibitionists with voyeurs in mind. Sure, some of them are just thinly-disguised sex sites, but many of them (especially the free ones) are about life. They depict their subjects in all sorts of mundane actions: eating, sleeping, watching TV, working at the computer, exercising, and (yes) getting dressed and undressed. The idea is to present a window into someone else's life. And, while none of these sites offers full, 24/7 access, some are close. It's also worth noting that cam pages can be addictive for both subjects and viewers. For the latter, they can become a kind of live soap opera. For the former, they're a shot at Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame.

EDtv, the latest release from popular director Ron Howard, takes the cam phenomenon to the next logical state. What if, instead of one person's day-to-day activities being shown on an Internet site, they were available on a cable TV channel? No browsers, no slow refresh rates, just real life, unscripted and unedited. It's a fascinating premise, and it has already spawned two motion pictures (the previous one, The Truman Show, was both more ambitious and more successful). It wouldn't surprise me if, sometime in the next decade, some variant of this became reality. And I have no doubt that it will be a huge hit.

The story starts, as many such stories do, in the corporate boardroom. A TV honcho (Rob Reiner) has decided that his cable station, San Francisco-based TrueTV, needs something to kick-start the ratings. "We're getting our butts kicked by the Gardening Channel," he complains. Cynthia (Ellen DeGeneres), an up-and-coming member of his staff, has the answer: a reality-based program that follows one man around every hour of every day of every week. After an exhaustive search, one subject - video store clerk Ed Pekurny (Matthew McConaughey) - is chosen. Ed is undecided about giving up his privacy by signing the contract. His family is no help - his brother, Ray (Woody Harrelson), is all for the idea, but his mother, Jeanette (Sally Kirkland) and stepfather, Al (Martin Landau), aren't as enthused. Eventually, however, the seductive lure of fame and money prod Ed to give his okay, and EDtv is born.

It's not an immediate hit. In fact, when the first images of Ed are of a sleepy man scratching his crotch, it looks headed for a quick death. Gradually, however, America becomes intrigued, then enamored, by the daily soap opera. And ratings begin to soar when Ed and his brother's pretty girlfriend, Shari (Jenna Elfman), admit their mutual attraction on the air. Soon, other women, like the sexy, predatory Jill (Elizabeth Hurley), are after Ed, and he discovers that national recognition has as many downsides as upsides.

It's fair to say that Jenna Elfman steals the movie. Already known to millions of Americans for her title role in the TV show "Dharma and Greg", Elfman proves here that her charisma is not limited to the small screen. In past theatrical efforts like Can't Hardly Wait and the horrible Krippendorf's Tribe, she has shown flashes, but this is her first opportunity to truly shine. EDtv comes alive when she's on-screen but tends to flounder otherwise. That's less a criticism of Matthew McConaughey, who gives one of his best performances to date in this understated part, than it is a condemnation of the script. Written by schmaltz-peddlers Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel (whose last effort was the sickeningly unfunny Fathers' Day, and who are frequently involved with Billy Crystal films), EDtv turns into a saccharine affair. Ganz and Mandel's idea of vicious satire is a couple of mildly amusing jabs at the television industry. For a movie that should have used the take-no-prisoners attitude of something like Bulworth, EDtv comes across as unforgivably mild and optimistic. At least the love story is enjoyable.

The cast is packed with recognizable names, which is a testimony to the kind of drawing power that director Ron Howard possesses. Woody Harrelson acquits himself admirably, primarily because he restricts himself to the kind of role he does best: a rather dim boor whose main purpose is to provide comic relief. Elizabeth Hurley adds a little sex appeal. And Dennis Hopper is effective against type as a timid man with a murky past. Then there are several miscasts. Ellen DeGeneres is flat and unconvincing as a TV exec who suddenly grows a conscience. Rob Reiner is too likable to be accepted as such a heartless jerk. Sally Kirkland and Martin Landau are okay, although the former is too shrill (that's intentional) and the latter is underused.

One of the things that disturbed me the most about EDtv is how poorly it applies a great premise. This is rich, fertile soil, but all Howard, Ganz, and Mandel cultivate from it is an insipid, feel-good comedy with a pleasant romance and a few solid jokes. There is brilliance to be found in this idea, which could have ripped the innards out of the television industry and shredded the public's preconceptions about fame and fortune, but the script lacks the guts and inclination to go for it. It's as if the film makers are afraid of offending anyone with clout. No one will ever confuse Ron Howard with Robert Altman. So, instead of a potentially hilarious satire, we're left with, as one character in the film puts it, "a joyous celebration of boobery."

EDtv (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 1999-03-26
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1