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'EDtv': Celebrity, Anyone?

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 1999

  Movie Critic

Matthew McConaughey and Jenna Elfman take public displays of affection to antoher level in "EDtv." (Universal)

Ron Howard
Matthew McConaughey;
Jenna Elfman;
Woody Harrelson;
Sally Kirkland;
Martin Landau;
Ellen DeGeneres;
Rob Reiner;
Dennis Hopper;
Elizabeth Hurley;
Adam Goldberg
Running Time:
2 hours, 3 minutes
For language and sexual situations
Like Monica and the Macarena, Ed (affable Matthew McConaughey) scores 15 minutes of fame in "EDtv," a rambunctious cautionary comedy about the consequences of celebrity. On the upside, there's unearned adulation and salivating super models. On the downside, suffocating crowds and coitus interruptus.

Directed by Ron Howard from a screenplay by frequent collaborators Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, the picture deals with many of the same themes as "The Truman Show," though with less sophistication and artistry. And that's not necessarily bad.

Howard's film, like McConaughey's performance, is unassuming, ingratiating and a little rough around the edges. It's definitely more audience-friendly than Peter Weir's complex fable. But there's also a significant difference between the films' two protagonists.

Truman, the product of a network creative exec, is a true innocent. He doesn't know that his Edenic life is a television show, while Ed, an eager accomplice from the outset of this Faustian tale, willingly trades his privacy and not a little freedom for a few moments in the spotlight.

The TV show is the brainchild of scrappy Cynthia Topping (Ellen DeGeneres), the programming director for True TV, a documentary channel with ratings lower than the pollen count in January. She persuades her smug, bloated boss (Rob Reiner) to green-light a show built around the daily routine of an ordinary but compelling San Franciscan.

While the setup is sluggish, the pace picks up the minute Cynthia plucks Ed Pekurny, a 31-year-old video clerk with an easygoing manner, twinkling eyes and sexy Texas twang, from the gaggle of candidates, including his big-mouthed older brother, Ray (Woody Harrelson).

In pitching the show to the press, Cynthia goes out of her way to disassociate it from MTV's "Real World" and the old PBS documentary about the Loud family. Of course, she protests too much. "EDtv" has no story and no actors. There's just Ed and the camera crew that records his every move. Cynthia and her staff begin to worry when it becomes obvious that Ed's life is as uneventful as the lives of those watching him. (But so too are the lives of many vapid celebrities, and we tune in to "Entertainment Tonight" anyway.)

The message, as Marshall McLuhan foretold, is superseded by the medium, and after a week's worth of all-day Ed, the public already perceives the laconic urban cowboy as a celebrity. Along with groping groupies and baying autograph hounds, he's pursued by the entertainment press and his fame spreads.

Jay Leno cracks jokes about him on "The Tonight Show" and uber-blabberers like Bill Maher, George Plimpton, Michael Moore and Arianna Huffington gas on about the social import of Ed, the Phenomenon. Of course, they predict the end of civilization as we know it.

The show's ratings skyrocket when Ed and Shari (a restrained Jenna Elfman), his brother's fiancee, discover that they are meant for each other. Alas, 71 percent of those polled by USA Today don't think Shari's good enough for Ed, so Cynthia engineers a romance with a seductive British model (Elizabeth Hurley) and the ensuing lusty rendezvous scores higher ratings than the Super Bowl.

Ed's long-lost father (Dennis Hopper), his dissembling mother (Sally Kirkland), lovable stepfather (Martin Landau) and other siblings are gradually drawn into the fray. The lack of privacy takes its toll on Ed, who learns how little Ron "Opie" Howard must have felt in the heyday of "Mayberry RFD." He has to contend with all those sycophants and lying suck-ups . . . and those are just the TV execs.

The former sitcom kid, however, is hardly a cynic, and there's little malice in this gentle slap at the medium. Like Weir in "The Truman Show," Howard acknowledges the public's increasing appetite for trashy verite programming, but he and the writers aim their harsher criticism at broadcast bigwigs. Reiner's honcho is the villain of the piece and the actor clearly relishes the mustachio-twirling role. Landau tackles the role of Ed's urologically challenged stepdad with wry resignation and a sweet poignancy. But it's McConaughey's blond good looks and irrepressible spirit that carry "EDtv."

He can surf my channels any day.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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