With The Truman Show's brilliant, media-manipulated nightmare still fresh in our minds, the thought of another film about an affable insta-celebrity sounds like insta-overkill. Yet by taking a less highbrow and more farcical route than Peter Weir's effort, director Ron Howard stakes out his own ground for a fresh take on our cultural obsession with fame. The result is an arch, surprisingly novel look at the distinctly American notion that if it's on TV, then it must be worthwhile.
EDtv is the baby of program director Cynthia Topping (a winningly acerbic Ellen DeGeneres), who's trying to jumpstart the floundering ratings of her cable channel, TrueTV. She hits upon an idea: What if the channel broadcasts, unedited, a regular person's life 24 hours a day? Reluctantly, the network powers-that-be greenlight the idea, and after scores of auditions, Topping finds her man: Ed Pekurny (Matthew McConaughey).
He's a goofy, puppyish, thirtysomething video-store clerk with an oddball family and the habit of wearing a beer cozy around his neck. His debut, however, isn't so perfect; on day one, a groggy Ed greets the American public by reaching for his morning hard-on and flexing his butt cheeks. It's unapologetically crude stuff for the typically wholesome Howard (Parenthood, Apollo 13), but it's also quite funny, and the deep-dimpled McConaughey works his good 'ol boy charm for his best comedic performance since 1993's Dazed and Confused.
The show - and consequently the movie - gets a kick of conflict when Ed kisses the girlfriend (a puckish Jenna Elfman) of his meat-headed brother (Woody Harrelson); soon after, Pekurny clan secrets hemorrhage into the headlines, and EDtv becomes a runaway hit. But for Ed and his family, the novelty of “All Ed, All the Time” quickly curdles.
Smart, funny, and well-acted, EDtv mulls the flip side to Truman Burbank's Kafkaesque hell: What happens when the subject of a media frenzy knows he's being manipulated? Indeed, Ed isn't so much the conscientious voice of middle America á la Gary Cooper's titular Everyman in the 1941 classic Meet John Doe as he is a living, breathing commodity, a cultural phenomenon akin to, say, a Beanie Baby. Essentially, Ed's fame is rooted in violation: the more recognizable he becomes, the more he's stripped of his individuality and very humanness. Here the most true-hearted characters are the ones who wave the cameras away.
Still, what Howard wants us to think of all this isn't clear. Like The Truman Show, EDtv holds a mirror to its audience by cutting to reaction shots of rabid, glued-to-the-tube fans. Yet there isn't a lick of fingerwagging: the film doesn't chastise us for salivating over Ed's every move. Like the skewered execs behind EDtv, Howard, in fact, appears perfectly content just to be hosting a thoroughly entertaining ride. No, this if-you-can't-beat-'em, join-'em approach doesn't make for the most provocative filmmaking; still, with its fine ensemble and steady laughs, EDtv is worth tuning into.