Ron Howard is proof that you can take the boy out of television, but you can’t take television…etc. The director of The Paper, Apollo 13, and Ransom makes enthusiastically proficient middle-of-the-road entertainments with soft, bland centers. He may, on occasion, tackle audacious subjects, but he never risks stirring you up. Geniality is his religion; the desire to stroke the audience, to make it feel comfortable and not too taxed, is wired into his nervous system.
EDtv, Howard’s latest clever-concept production, looks, for a while, like it might shake free of the director’s usual Velveeta patness, if only because the movie itself comes on as a hip, knowing satire of the packaged omnivorousness of contempo TV culture. The central character, Ed Pekurny (Matthew McConaughey), is an amiably serene, aw-shucks rube who is plucked from obscurity by a fledgling cable channel called True TV and made the star of his own round-the-clock, this-is-my-private-reality show, a kind of marathon solo version of The Real World or An American Family. A feverish cluster of cameramen track Ed’s every move, from bed to bathroom to work to dance club to bed again, and his most intimate encounters are broadcast, right as they happen, into the living rooms of America.
The station executives, led by program director Cynthia Topping (Ellen DeGeneres, tossing off her usual brittle-as-plaster sarcasms), have chosen Ed, a San Francisco video-store clerk who still speaks in his native Texas drawl, precisely for his unguarded simplicity. At first, the show consists of little more than Ed brushing his teeth, Ed checking out his butt on TV, Ed clipping his toenails in huge, gnarly close-up. Surprise! — the folks at home are bored. They want drama, damn it.
They get it, of course. Ed has a crush on Shari (Jenna Elfman), the girlfriend of his older brother, Ray (Woody Harrelson), a charmingly blustery happy-hour rogue. One night, Ed knocks on Ray’s door, and the camera crew inadvertently reveals the curvy specimen Ray has just picked up and bedded. That’s enough to send Shari scurrying into Ed’s all-too-willing arms. They kiss, tenderly, right on camera. Big drama! Applause in all the living rooms! With the romantic clinch broadcast live, Ray, of course, now knows about the relationship. More drama! Then Ed, in the midst of a visit with his mom (Sally Kirkland) and weary, wheelchair-bound stepdad (Martin Landau), learns the truth about his real dad. So much drama!
But is it, really? In EDtv, Ed’s existence turns out to be a series of cute, tidy episodes that play as if they’d already been scripted for a television show. His life is a glorified season of Friends. Had Howard built this irony directly into the movie, it might have resulted in a juicy pop-culture jape — that, or some of the eerie, you-are-who-you-act-like gamesmanship that ricocheted through that media-age hall of mirrors, The Truman Show. But Howard wants us to take the cliches of Ed’s life perfectly straight. As a fable of instantaneous televisual fame, EDtv is lively yet obvious, and it’s padded with gauzy layers of contrivance. (Much of the time, the people close to Ed barely even register that they’re surrounded by lights and cameras.) The fact that someone’s life is being channeled into entertainment never achieves much tension or comedic zest. That’s because Howard, as a filmmaker, thinks in cookie-cutter ”situations” to begin with.
Matthew McConaughey may have been born to play self-deluded hayseeds. In EDtv, his outsize jaw and spacey, shiny-eyed frat boy’s beam help him appear touchingly guileless (and make him resemble his on-screen brother, Woody Harrelson, to an amusing degree). But Ed’s lack of self-awareness, the very thing that renders him so relaxed, so himself, in front of the cameras, also turns him into Howard’s patronizing slob version of a ”real” American — a man-child who remains uncorrupted by fame. Having achieved celebrity, Ed falls for the temptations of a hot model (Elizabeth Hurley) who wants to exploit him (yet another ”situation” — Episode 9: The Phantom Slut). He also faces off against the nasty TV executives who, it turns out, just wanted to invade his privacy for ratings. The fiends! What the film tellingly ignores is that the one who made the choice to invade Ed’s privacy was Ed. Ron Howard is too compulsively tame a filmmaker to embrace the implications of his own movie: that television is swallowing up our lives because more and more of us would kill to be watched. B-