EDtv (1999)

D: Ron Howard
S: Matthew McConaughy, Jenna Elfman, Ellen DeGeneres

Lighthearted media satire from Ron Howard (Ransom), better organised and less pretentious than The Truman Show but no less moot. A cable TV station airs an experimental programme following twenty four hours a day in the life of video store clerk Matthew McConaughy (Contact, A Time to Kill). As he becomes a celebrity, his personal relationships begin to suffer, especially a blossoming romance with nervous Jenna Elfman. There isn't a lot in this script by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel which isn't obvious from the outset, and the film lacks the force to make this irrelevant (Network it is not). In the interests of keeping things up-beat and entertaining (which it often is), it is relentlessly cheerful about its snipes and swipes at the culture of postmodernism, and allows a cosy story of romance against the odds to take centre stage. This is probably just as well, because in an uncanny echo of its own endless jokes about voyeurism and our addiction to narrative, watching the mechanics of the personal relationships is about all there is to do here after about half an hour of good yuks and an enjoyable set-up.

The film is mostly composed of scenes of people watching TV. As the lives of its characters unfold, collide, and encounter various turning points and twists, a variety of minor characters respond with comments, observations, judgments, and even hatch plans to manipulate them. Visually, this doesn't lend itself particularly well to the cinema screen, and one wonders if the whole thing might have been better as a TV movie. The style of the film is in fact reminiscent of the sit-com set-up/punch-line format, and lacks even the half-assed poetry of The Truman Show. The absence of any real dramatic meat amid all of this gentle leg-pulling eventually tells, as it seems long at just under two hours despite holding interest more or less all the way through. The performances help a lot, with McConaughy likable enough in the lead, Elfman fetchingly vulnerable (which raises questions of its own), and a variety of supporting turns from Woody Harrelson, Sally Kellerman, Martin Landau, Dennis Hopper, Rob Reiner, Ellen DeGeneres, Elizabeth Hurley, and the inevitable Clint Howard.

Released in the wake of The Truman Show, the film unavoidably finds itself competing with it for kudos. In common with that film, it has one or two worthwhile points to make about the voyeuristic, postmodern, consumerist society which surrounds its characters. But in contrast to The Truman Show, EDtv deals not with the idea of an enclosed world controlled by godlike forces but with a 'normal' world which achieves exaggerated status in society with negative consequences for all. Ignoring the religious/paternal overtones of its predecessor, the film deals mostly in identifiable realities. It explicitly portrays its central characters as unexceptional people, and the network execs who plot and scheme are not the softspoken god/prophet played by Ed Harris, but casually mortal (if generic) scumbags (Rob Reiner is wonderful as an amoral producer, Ellen DeGeneres is not particularly credible as the one with a conscience). The conflicts and crises which develop are not the result of denial or deception, but of excessive exposure to the truth (though the script raises the expected questions about how true anything on television is anyway). In the midst of it all is the story of two people with (we're told) troubled romantic pasts who must learn to see past the problems and take a chance on trust. The rest of the movie is narrative scaffolding, with few of the secondary characters developing after the first few scenes which introduce them and an all-too-convenient resolution designed for the 'feel-good' factor rather than dramatic or thematic closure.

The film is harmless enough, although this is really part of the problem. It happily plods along for just under two hours without ever sticking the knife in to either its characters or its subject. Worse yet, for a film which makes gags about product placement and commercial exploitation, it is filled with shameless plugs for Pepsi and UPS which cannot pass without a mention. As usual for a film from Ron Howard and his collaborators, there is a lot more to be said than the script actually does. Howard tells a story well enough, but in this case the sheer familiarity of the material and the lack of genuine penetration makes it tedious after a while. What momentum it has comes from professional craftsmanship, which may be enough to make it video rental fodder, but it is not likely to prove the crowd and critic pleaser that The Truman Show was. Neither film is a masterpiece, but of the two EDtv is the less interesting, which is unfortunate given how relatively successful it is within its more limited range of ambitions.


Note: The region 2 DVD is loaded with extra features. There is forty minutes of deleted footage, some of it interesting, including many confrontational and down-tempo scenes which round out the characters a little better than the movie itself does and a whole sub-plot about a rival show in the same vein, outtakes, a production documentary, theatrical trailer, cast and crew details and production notes, and two commentaries, one by Howard and another one by writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.