So This Is Your Life?

Since EDtv is about a guy whose life is played out in front of TV cameras, comparisons will be made to "The Truman Show." The similarities are obvious, with the crucial difference that Ed Pekurny (Matthew McConaughey), the 31-year-old video-store clerk in San Francisco who's catapulted to media stardom, is an entirely willing participant. The truth is that director Ron Howard's lively, Zeitgeist-surfing comedy is so topical it will call to mind everything from Larry Flynt's offer to pay for dirt exposing Republicans to Barbara Walters's Neilsen-busting Monica interview, a squirm-inducing two hours that, like "EDtv," shows us the ghastly repercussions of turning our private lives public.

Ed is a likable east Texas slob plucked out of the crowd by producer Cynthia Topping (a wryly funny Ellen DeGeneres) in a desperate effort to rescue her ailing True TV network. His vain brother, Ray (Woody Harrelson in full cracker mode), wanted the gig to promote his gym. Instead, good ole boy Ray settles for a supporting role that proves disastrous when the camera catches him betraying his girlfriend Shari (Jenna Elfman). The ratings soar when Shari, who always had eyes for little brother, falls hard for Ed. Can Ed and Shari's love survive the prying eye of the camera--and a USA Today poll that thinks she's not good enough to be his girlfriend? Will Ed succumb to the temptations of celebrity--which take the form of a knockout British model (Elizabeth Hurley) whose lusty seduction of our country-boy hunk provides Super Bowl-size ratings?

The omnivorous TV camera wreaks havoc on the lives of all it touches--including Ed's attention-craving mom (Sally Kirkland), his wheelchair-bound stepdad (a hilarious Martin Landau) and Ed's long-lost father (Dennis Hopper), who pops up to cash in on his son's newfound fame. While the nation watches transfixed, the pundits (from George Plimpton to Arianna Huffington) weigh in on the dire meaning of Ed-mania, and Jay Leno cracks wise.

Written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (inspired by an obscure 1994 French Canadian satire), "EDtv" isnt exactly breaking new ground. Albert Brooks's "Real Life" sent up the absurdity of turning private reality into mass spectacle nearly 20 years ago. Ron Howard's version is--no surprise--a funny, audience-friendly entertainment that's ultimately less scathing satire than conventional Hollywood romantic comedy outfitted in trendy new clothes.

Elfman gives Shari poignance and some emotional heft--like Renee Zellweger, her emotions seem to overtake her like nasal congestion. But it's McConaughey's show, and he turns on an impressive display of charm. This role is just what the actor's stumbling career needed. After being badly miscast in "Contact" and "Amistad" (he should never wear scarves or granny glasses), he's found redemption returning to his down-home roots. Indeed, if McConaughey weren't so likable we would be utterly appalled by the cavalier way Ed draws everyone around him into his ego trip.

Howard and his writers pull off a neat sleight-of-hand by turning the two characters who logically should be the movie's villains--the exhibitionist Ed and the cynical Cynthia, who dreamt up the idea--into its heroes. But their late-in-the-game change of heart is strictly by the numbers. There's something disingenuous about the way the film completely lets them off the hook--they take no personal responsibility for the mess they've created. Instead, Rob Reiner as the heartless network boss becomes the stock, easy-to-hate villain. Everything gets tied up in a neat and satisfying bow, and all the disturbing undercurrents are swept under the rug.

You'll have a good time watching "EDtv"-- Howard is always at his best in comic mode ("Splash," the best parts of "Parenthood") and he gives the film a cleverly cluttered look that suggests the experience of watching reality on multiple monitors. Perhaps one reason his movie feels oddly tame is that reality, lately, has been far more outrageous than Hollywood's imaginings. As a sardonic comment on our media-twisted, confession-for-cash times it can't hold a candle to the Walters/Lewinsky interview (though it's certainly more fun). Great, if unwitting, satire is Barbara's pretending not to know what phone sex is, and Monica's apologizing for the pain she's caused Hillary and Chelsea, then heaping two more hours of unalloyed misery upon them. Even Ed Pekurny has a little shame.

So This Is Your Life? | News