First screened and reviewed in March 1999 / Most recently screened in March 2020
Director: Ron Howard. Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jenna Elfman, Woody Harrelson, Ellen DeGeneres, Rob Reiner, Sally Kirkland, Martin Landau, Dennis Hopper, Elizabeth Hurley, Adam Goldberg, Clint Howard, Robert Pastoriza, Rusty Schwimmer, Steven Shenbaum, Gedde Watanabe, Harry Shearer, Michael Moore, Merrill Markoe, George Plimpton, RuPaul, Jay Leno, Bill Maher. Screenplay: Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (based on the film Louis 19, le roi des ondes, written by Émile Gaudreault and Sylvie Bouchard).
On revisiting this movie 21 years later, I questioned a lot of the same imprecisions in the story and the same issues of structure and pace. At the same time, whether I appreciated the time capsule of late-90s media ecology, as embodied by the cast, the soundtrack, and the images as the plot, or whether I simply felt more charmed by the light-comic execution, I wouldn't give the movie as hard a time as I did below. I think McConaughey and Elfman are both quite good in the center, and I felt great relief to experience Howard's bright if modest hand at comedy, far from the heavy weather of almost everything he's made since. I'm more of a B– now, but here's the original piece for your perusal. Judge away! —Mar. 2020

Twitter Capsule: Some threads and potentials under-exploited but the cast sells this curious time capsule. Howard's touch a bit lighter here.

VOR:   Less conceptually ambitious than The Truman Show but memorable in its own way for marrying a new media phenomenon with a light comic recipe.

Photo © 1999 Universal Pictures
No one can say that the cast and the filmmakers of EDtv do not know their subject material. Almost every principal cast member has experienced the combined adulation and torture associated with being an "overnight sensation." Many—Woody Harrelson, Jenna Elfman, Rob Reiner, Martin Landau, even director Ron Howard—first entered the spotlight as stars of popular television shows. Others followed more peculiar routes to instant stardom, from Ellen DeGeneres's publicized coming-out to Elizabeth Hurley's infamous Humiliation By Wandering Boyfriend, all the way to Sally Kirkland's dubious distinction as the first actress to appear onstage entirely nude. Probably no star of the 1990s (except possibly Alicia Silverstone) has had a more dizzying or brutal run-in with celebrity hype than the once-ubiquitous Matthew McConaughey, whose stature among the Rich and Famous has declined so precipitously in recent months that EDtv is being hailed as a major comeback for him…and he was brand new to us only three years ago! (There but for the grace of God go Damon, Diaz, and Affleck.)

So, yes, these people share unique credentials to make a film about sudden, tabloid-style fame and its ramifications. We must now, however, confront the fact that the film they actually made is scattershot and disappointingly muddled. The exposition is crisp enough. DeGeneres's Cynthia is an up-and-coming program developer at a flagging network owned by Reiner. "We're getting our asses whipped by The Gardening Channel," Cynthia tells her staff. "People would rather watch soil." In desperation, or else merely seizing an opportunity for a personal pet project, Cynthia hopes to pioneer a new show in which one man's life will be chronicled 24 hours a day by a team of TV cameramen, who will broadcast his meals, workout and grooming regimens, even—or especially—his personal and family relationships to viewers around the country. If this concept sounds somewhat familiar to you, I'll be getting to that later.

Anyway, Cynthia's NWBC crews are holding auditions in San Francisco when Ray Pekurny (Harrelson) shows up at a bar, deposits his girlfriend Shari (Elfman) on a stool, and mugs in his own hyper-energized sleazoid way for the camera. The NWBC execs, however, look right past Ray and see his humbler, slightly younger, but rowdy-enough brother Ed (McConaughey). Though his brother seems miffed to have been overlooked, Ed is a jolly and boisterous enough Texan good ol' boy to accept the network's offer. (His family's residence by the Bay is briskly and implausibly explained; the screenwriters would have done better to admit they wanted San Francisco for the balmier, hipper location shoot.)

EDtv starts out swimmingly, and occasionally with a few smart set-pieces thrown in. It's an early sign of bad things to come for Ed when the folks who audition him watch his interview on TV screens rather than turning in their seats to look at the man himself: he is literally sitting only ten feet away. Some of the situations are played for laughs, as when Ed wakes up on his first morning as a media-zoo animal and gets caught scratching his groin, which is, even more embarrassingly, standing at attention. Neighbors, co-workers, relations, and even bystanders kowtow shamelessly before the cameras. A thornier situation occurs when Ed, with TV crew in perpetual tow, arrives at Ray's apartment and finds him nearly undressed with a woman who isn't Shari. Ed is forced to go himself to Shari's apartment and play the Miles Standish role of courting a woman on behalf of another man. Ed himself, of course, has lost his own heart to Shari, and Jenna Elfman's sprightly but grounded performance—she's not just channeling Dharma—doesn't make us doubt all the fuss.

Ironically, Shari, just like NWBC, chooses Ed over Ray with almost no hesitation. The new romance between Ed and Shari, however, is soon troubled by Elizabeth Hurley, bravely playing the adulterous vixen to a famous male celeb. Even more problematically, it turns out, Shari feels she cannot compete with Ed's legions of devoted watchers or with the constant onslaught of cameras, autograph hounds, and other media-machine participants who surround even their most intimate moments. Shari asks for time off from the relationship until Ed's 15 minutes have run out. Unfortunately for her, and possibly for him as well, the show becomes such a hit that his contract is repeatedly renewed and his salary raised.

More happens to complicate Ed's tenure as a public fascination-object, and some of what I have described does not take place precisely in the order I have portrayed. On the one hand, these things are true because the screenwriters, Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz (whose previous credits include City Slickers), know full well how hopelessly convoluted are the lives of public figures and how hard they are to follow faithfully. Still, Mandel and Ganz are guilty of some gangly, over-stuffed, and disorganized plotting. Ed's interactions with Hurley's temptress seem to happen at too great intervals to generate any real heat or even interest for the audience. Worse, when Elfman's and Harrelson's characters take their own hiatuses from Ed's life, we are given too few indications of how either of them spends their time alone. And if the picture really only takes a few months' time, why does Elfman's hairstyle seem to change so much?

There are worse fumbles than these built into EDtv, however, and most of them have to do with the filmmakers' incomplete vision of the concept and their insufficient notions of what point exactly they intend their film to make. Like The Truman Show, this admittedly less ambitious picture is utterly silent about why exactly this 24-hour reality programming is supposed to have captivated the whole nation's attention. What is it about this format that would attract an entire country of avid fans? The glimpses we get of viewers in their homes are more satisfying than those afforded by the Truman script, but still we cannot be sure why we should accept "EDtv" as a bonafide hit or a focus of coast-to-coast attention. Yes, Ed's life becomes something of a soap opera, but there are tons of those on TV anyway—and even some of those shows feature less desperate and convoluted storylines than that which Dennis Hopper has to slog through here as Ed's long-lost deadbeat Dad.

If the makers of EDtv seem a little unsure as to why the show would be such a hit, they seem even less positive about exactly what statement they want their film to make. Sure, TV is an invidious presence in modern society, and everyone's a boob in front of a camera lens, and celebrity can be a real bitch. None of this is news, and for a while, EDtv maintains a comic lightness that excuses it from really confronting any new themes regarding its media-saturation concept. In its last third, however, speeches start appearing that alternately indict TV for human problems and indict human characters for blaming their problems on TV. A reconciliation between Ed and Shari is a particularly unsatisfying moment—he insists that she is running from him not because of the ceaseless hoopla but merely because she fears commitment. She buys that line of argument long enough to get back together with him; I not only didn't jive with this reasoning at all, but I took particular exception to watching the smartest character in the movie be told by one of the most naïve that she failed to grasp the heart of her own issues. What is this, As Good As It Gets all over again? Are men in '90s comedies forever entitled to act like total rubes for two hours and win back some amazingly secure and patient women with a single, fraudulent puppy-dog plea?

By the end of EDtv, the writing has gotten so arbitrary that the performers are pretty much left to their own familiar devices to carry the picture to its nearly embarrassing end. That eleventh-hour reliance on cast charisma goes over better than it should because DeGeneres, McConaughey, and Elfman in particular have an easy appeal that's hard to defeat. Watching Martin Landau make umpteen jokes about bladder control and living at death's door, however, is less galvanizing entertainment, and I walked out feeling like the whole project could have taken a few extra months in Rewrite. EDtv is as amiable as the performers who were recruited onboard; they make the film painless to watch but hard to remember and impossible to get really excited about. If EDtv itself were the program hand-picked to save a flagging network like NWBC, the prognosis might have been grim indeed. Grade: C

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