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Weekly Alibi EDtv

By Devin D. O'Leary

APRIL 5, 1999:  Most filmgoers seem to be dismissing director Ron Howard's new comedy EDtv merely because it looks like a rip-off of last summer's smash The Truman Show. It could just as easily be called a rip-off of MTV's "The Real World" series. It could also be dubbed a rip-off of Albert Brooks' 1979 movie Real Life. Or it could be a rip-off of the 1971 PBS docu-series "An American Family" (the very show Albert Brooks was parodying in Real Life). Maybe it all traces back to Paul Bartel's 29-minute short from 1966 called The Secret Cinema. Hell, if you dug deep enough, you could probably find a similar plot somewhere in the Bible. ... For what it's worth, the writers of EDtv (Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel of Parenthood/City Slickers fame) claim that EDtv is a rip-off of some obscure 1994 French Canadian film called Louis XIX: Roi des Ondes (Louis 19: King of the Airwaves). Just goes to show you that there's no such thing as a completely original idea.

EDtv relates the story of a thirtysomething slacker named Ed (Matthew McConaughey) who spends his nights haunting a local tavern with his rowdy brother Ray (Woody Harrelson) and his days working in a video store (the apparent job-of-choice for today's slackers). Ed's pedestrian life takes a radical turn, however, when he is chosen by executives from a cable TV station to star in a 24-hour-a-day documentary about his life. The joke, of course, is that Ed doesn't have a life. At first, viewers are treated to lengthy footage of Ed clipping his toenails. Still, people grow increasingly addicted to Ed's live broadcast lifestyle. And when some real soap opera-style drama injects itself into Ed's life (he starts falling in love with his brother's fiancée), ratings go through the roof. Naturally, Ed's life and the lives of those around him are thrown into chaos by this sudden fame.

The most unfortunate thing about EDtv, I suppose, is its timing. The folks over at Universal delayed its release for a few months, but it still follows too closely on the heels of The Truman Show to avoid comparison. EDtv does differ from Truman Show in a number of ways--mostly in the fact that its "star" is a willing participant in the media circus that surrounds him. Still, Howard's film suffers when compared with the pristine styling and bold existential bent of Peter Weir's hit. The Truman Show told the story of a man born and raised to be the ultimate media product. Everything about Truman's world (including himself) was artificial. The fun in Truman Show was watching a character (the sublime Jim Carrey), who was little more than a living, breathing figment of people's imagination, try and escape that plastic environment.

EDtv, on the other hand, gives us an average, ordinary doofus who is suddenly thrust into the limelight and experiences the horrors of fame (his relationships suffer, his family is hounded, fans stalk him). The problem with EDtv is that it casts its net in far too shallow waters. Satirizing media in today's world is like shooting fish in a pickle jar. The media manipulates the truth, and human beings like their privacy--these hardly qualify as eye-opening morals at movie's end. Andy Warhol's "fifteen minute" philosophy has received more than a workout in this decade, and we all know the fate that awaits people who are "famous for being famous."

Whereas The Truman Show reveled in a surreal atmosphere of paranoia and parable, EDtv is happy to ground itself in familiar sitcom trappings. Howard, who's no stranger to comedy (having helmed such humorous hits as Parenthood and Splash), succeeds in milking some boisterous laughs from Ed's crazed situation. After USA Today polls reveal that 71 percent of Americans think Ed's new girlfriend ("Dharma & Greg's" Jenna Elfman) isn't good enough for him, the cable TV gurus engineer a date with a British model (Elizabeth Hurley). The resulting tryst plays out something like a sexual version of the Super Bowl. Such moments shore up EDtv's stale situation with a jokey charm.

EDtv bears a few unmistakable scars of post-film tinkering (perhaps in an effort to wean it away from The Truman Show?). Several characters drop in and out of the storyline with a disconcerting jolt. Woody Harrelson's character, present in nearly every scene in the first half, all but disappears in the second half. Similarly, our title hero's relationship with Elizabeth Hurley builds to a fever pitch, then vaporizes instantly. Dennis Hopper, who pops in as Ed's long-lost pop, is so under- utilized he feels like an afterthought. On the plus side, Matthew McConaughey has finally found a suitable application for his scruffy East Texas appeal, and proves he's better at playing comic leads than he is at playing dramatic leads (as anyone who slept through Amistad can attest).

In its own right, EDtv is an amiable, enjoyable laugh-getter. As a cynical satire of modern-day media, though, it falls a few rungs short of its progenitors.

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