One of the interesting trends in recent years has been the whole 'reality television' craze. Jaded by years of prime-time soap opera offerings, special-effect-laden extravaganzas, and insipid sitcoms, an increasing number of television viewers are finding themselves fascinated by some of the stranger-than-fiction events being captured by video cameras. Fueled by prime-time ratings grabbers such as "When Good Times Go Bad", "The World's Most Scariest Police Chases" and "Guinness Prime Time", the voyeuristic demands of television audiences are being increasingly being satiated and raised-- the more outrageous, shocking, and most of all, the more real, the greater the pay-off. And this is not merely a North American phenomenon-- 'reality' shows have sprung up all over the world and, not surprisingly, on the Internet. Taking the concept of real TV one step further, in which someone's entire life is captured by the television camera, is the premise of director Ron Howard's latest film, "EDTV". And while it is not as heartwarming or thought provoking as last year's "The Truman Show", there is still enough in this film to make it worthwhile.
The film opens with True TV, a San Francisco cable channel that specializes in reality television, in need of a ratings boost. Program director Cynthia Topping (Ellen DeGeneres, formerly of "Ellen") has come up with the idea of recording an ordinary person's daily routine twenty-four hours a day. With the support of her boss (Rob Reiner), she sends out a casting call for an ordinary guy to be the star of this new show.
The search nets Cynthia a poor but affable video store clerk by the name of Ed Pekurny ("Amistad", "Contact"). And though Ed is lured by the prospect of a financial windfall, his mother Jeanette (Sally Kirkland) and stepfather Al (Martin Landau, last seen in "The X-Files: Fight the Future") have reservations about the whole idea. However, Ed's older brother Ray (Woody Harrelson of "Palmetto" and "Welcome to Sarajevo") throws in his support, since he needs Ed's newfound wealth to guarantee the loan for opening a new gym. Avarice ends up winning the day, and Ed signs up to be the star of EDtv.
The show begins on a less-than-promising note with the image of Ed scratching his crotch upon awakening. Things don't improve much after that, as the show fails to galvanize audiences with Ed going about his boring routine, the only 'action sequence' being a Pop Tart burning Ed's hands. However, audiences soon become hooked on the show when Ed admits his love for his brother's girlfriend Shari (Jenna Elfman of "Dharma and Greg" and "Can't Hardly Wait") on the air, creating a real-life soap opera to tune into. Not surprisingly, Ed becomes a national celebrity, adored by millions of television viewers. However, Ed's sudden stardom quickly begins to lose its luster, as a series of events and troubling revelations begin to plague Ed and his family, including Shari's inability to deal with the loss of her privacy and the sudden reappearance of Ed's estranged father (Dennis Hopper of "Speed"). Pretty soon, the execs at True TV start meddling with Ed's life in an attempt to make his life more 'ratings-friendly', such as hooking him up with a sexy model (Elizabeth Hurley of "Austin Powers"), a ploy which Ed is too naive to see.
Ron Howard has put together quite an entertaining film with "EDTV", though it does become uneven in spots. The best aspect of the film is the romance between Ed and Shari, which is helped by McConaughey's earnest performance and Elfman's infectious charm. In fact, without Elfman's terrific turn as the emotionally vulnerable love interest, "EDTV" would have been nothing more than a mildly interesting high-concept script. It is Elfman's character that ends up grounding the proceedings in reality, breathing life into the film. The rest of the cast also does reasonably well with the material. Harrelson is right at home playing the boorish and beer-guzzling older brother, Hopper is cast-against-type as Ed's humble father, and Hurley effectively vamps it up as a fame-hungry vixen, bringing some sizzle to the second act. However, there are also some misfires in the casting department. Landau ends up being wasted as scatological comic relief, and DeGeneres doesn't convincingly handle the change of heart that her character undergoes.
And like "The Truman Show", Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel's script shows the 'macro' effects that Ed's televised exploits has on the world around him. In addition to showing the reactions of audiences around the country, a number of interesting cameos are used to bring an air of 'authenticity' to the proceedings. The best of the bunch include left-wing documentarian Michael Moore (creator of "Roger and Me" and "TV Nation") in a mocking appearance, and "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno, whose monologues poke fun at the latest developments in Ed's life.
On the downside, "EDTV" lacks the emotional resonance, sly mocking humor, subtext, and gee-whiz moments of "The Truman Show". Whereas the narrative of last year's Jim Carrey vehicle managed to work cohesively on many different levels, the plot in "EDTV" is relatively straightforward-- what you see is what you get. As a result, the film ends up unraveling more like your standard feel-good/romance fare. While it was certainly an entertaining to spend an afternoon, it lacked the exuberance that would compel me to see this film more than once.
"EDTV" is a decent, but not great, effort from Ron Howard. If you like to be entertained by a good romance with some comedy thrown in, then this film is certain to entertain. But if you are looking for a well-crafted film that makes you feel and think, then you might find yourself slightly disappointed by "EDTV".