Review: Tune in, turn on to 'EDtv'
March 25, 1999
By Reviewer Paul Clinton
(CNN) -- It has often been said that fame can be a double-edged sword; we've all seen how public recognition can have its dark side when someone's every move is documented. (Hello, Monica!) Now director Ron Howard has decided to explore the theme of sudden fame in his new film, "EDtv."
It seems like a lot of people keep insisting on comparing "EDtv" to "The Truman Show." Well, forget about it. Beyond the fact that someone's every move is taped and broadcast on television, the two films have nothing in common.
It's like comparing "The Green Berets" to "Saving Private Ryan" because they're both about war. Besides, "EDtv" is a lot better. For me, the main gimmick of "The Truman Show" wore off fast.
Ed, played by Matthew McConaughey, is your average dead-end Joe. He's 31 years old, works as a video store clerk, and spends his free time playing pool with his womanizing and opportunistic brother Ray (Woody Harrelson).
TV network goes for broke
At the same time, we meet Cynthia Topping and Jim Whitaker, played by Ellen DeGeneres and Rob Reiner, who are cable TV executives. Their network, True TV, airs reality shows. But it's seen a catastrophic slide in ratings, to the point that the company is nearly bankrupt. As Topping puts it, "we don't even have money for coffee filters. We're using yarmulkes."
In a last-ditch effort to stay on the air, they decide to go MTV's "The Real World" one better and televise someone's every move, day and night, for 30 days with no editing, no script -- each and every minute will be TRUE TV!
After a nationwide search for the unlucky slob whose life will be put under a microscope, they pick Ed. They're hoping his honest charm and natural good looks will make him watchable to millions. Amazingly -- or not amazingly, depending on your opinion of the intelligence of the average American TV viewer -- the show works.
Soon, Ed's a major celebrity wherever he goes. A lot of comedic mileage is logged as Ed travels along the rocky road to becoming a "household name." Howard cleverly returns again and again to the same groups of viewers -- a bunch of girls in a dorm, a black couple with an infant, a gay couple, etc. -- as they become increasingly hooked on the trials and tribulations of Ed.
But this sudden fame isn't good for his love life with his new girlfriend Shari, played winningly by Jenna Elfman, who proves she can do comedy beyond the confines of her television character Dharma on the hit series "Dharma & Greg."
Turning in equally winning performances are Martin Landau and Sally Kirkland, who play Ed's stepfather and mother. (In a small role, Dennis Hopper plays Ed's real father). Landau steals every scene he's in, milking his wonderful dialogue with brilliant comedic timing. Kirkland has a small but showy role which allows her to chew the scenery.
The role of Ed is McConaughey's best work so far. Of course, this exploration into the effects of sudden fame isn't new territory for McConaughey, whose photo was on the cover of Vanity Fair before his first major movie, "A Time to Kill," even hit the theaters in 1996. 1993's "Dazed and Confused," featuring Matthew, was a small independent film, and "Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2" wasn't released until after he was already a star.
Cast with the right experience
Howard chose his cast well in that most of "EDtv"'s stars have personal experience with sudden fame. Harrelson became famous overnight playing the bartender on "Cheers."
Elizabeth Hurley, who plays an ambitious femme fatale in "EDtv," was hurled into fame after wearing a revealing Versace dress, held together with huge safety pins, while on the arm of her boyfriend, actor Hugh Grant -- then came a big Estee Lauder contract.
Elfman also came out of nowhere with her hit series. Yes, she was in a failed comedy with Molly Ringwald, but that doesn't count -- no one watched it.
And of course, when it comes to fame, the biggest expert of them all is Howard himself. While promoting this film on "The Today Show" he told Katie Couric that he learned how to write as a child by signing his autograph. He starred in "The Music Man" when he was six! Then came Opie and "Happy Days."
This film could have easily turned into a "boo-hoo I'm famous leave me alone" tirade. But Howard wisely avoided that route. "EDtv" is ultimately a very funny, yet revealing look at the price that's paid for fame, even if it's just the Andy Warhol 15-minute variety.
Howard astutely examines how fame has now become its own virtue. One line in the film sums it up: "People used to be famous for being special, now they're special by just being famous." True, this whole concept, and the film in general, is delivered in a sleek Hollywood package that's tied up neatly in the end. But still it's very entertaining.
It was also a stroke of genius to cast Harrelson and McConaughey as brothers. They're both good ol' boys from Texas and look and act like two peas in a pod. And I have to mention the wonderful typecasting. Hurley plays a walking coat hanger addicted to flashbulbs -- duh -- and when DeGeneres flips off the TV network, you just know she's done it before.
A final note: Of course Howard's brother, Clint, is in the film as usual, playing a TV technician. Keep your eyes peeled as well for Howard's old "Happy Days" costar Donny Most.
"EDtv" is rated PG-13, and has a running time of 121 minutes.
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