Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

EDtv (1999) **

Directed by Ron Howard. Written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, based on the Quebecois movie  "Louis XIX: Roi Des Ondes," written by Emile Gaudreault and Sylvie Bouchard and directed by Michel Poulette. Photography, John Schwartzman. Editing, Mike Hill  & Dan Hanley. Production design, Michael Corenblith. Music,  Randy Edelman. Produced by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard.  Cast: Matthew McConaughey (Ed), Jenna Elfman (Shari), Woody Harrelson (Ray), Sally  Kirkland (Jeanette), Martin Landau (Al), Ellen DeGeneres (Cynthia), Rob Reiner (Whitaker), Dennis Hopper (Hank), Elizabeth Hurley (Jill) et al. A Universal/Imagine release. 120 minutes. PG-13.

There is a temptation to say that EDtv is the poor man's The Truman Show. But this would be a simplification, except in the sense that Truman was a more complex and ambitious idea. One might also say that Pleasantville or the earlier Mad City have some marginal bearing on EDtv, yet the connections are even more tenuous. And, in case EDtv is thought to be either an original movie or a derivative film, remember that it is a remake.

In 1994, Canada (with a big infusion of French funds), released a comedy whose title, in English, would be Louis the 19th: King of the Airwaves-- a pun on the kings of France, the last of those named Louis being number18 (reigned 1814-1824).

In the Montreal-shot production, Louis, an employee with a tedious job in a TV shop, has a   a passion for being in the audiences of TV shows, games and the like. He wins a contest and is chosen to spend three months being stalked by cameras night and day --and shown on live TV. This makes of a nonentity an overnight celebrity. But there is a price to pay, in lack of privacy and interference by the medium, especially since television and other people try to spice up   Louis's dull life and run it. So, Louis retaliates...

The film was a major hit in Canada and, in the Genie awards received the Calude Jutra Prize. So it is not really "an obscure movie" as the studio claims. It was re-written with its major premises intact by the team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. They have done very well on films such as City Slickers, Mr. Saturday Night, or  A League of their Own. Also in entertainments directed by Ron Howard: Night Shift, Splash, Gung Ho (underrated), Parenthood. I like much of the work of those writers and that director, and I love the name Babaloo which was, in the 1940s I believe, a very popular song, either Latin American or a good imitation of the Latino style. (Mr. Mandel's parents, assuming they chose the name, ought to have received a medal for courage and for making people smile each time they hear that name!)

In EDtv, the protagonist is Ed, played by Matthew McConaughey with long facial stubble, as if he couldn't decide whether to shave it or to grow a real beard. It's rather typical of his other indecisions. Ed, who works in a San Francisco video store, is a nice, pleasant loser, neither strongly conscious of this nor noticeably unhappy.

True TV, a two-year old Bay Area cable channel owned by a Mr.Whitaker (Ron Howard), is going downhill, badly.  Its program director Cynthia Topping (Ellen DeGeneres) comes up with the plan of following a perfectly ordinary person's life, on live TV, around the clock, as things happen  or don't happen. "It's not the Louds. It's not MTV's Real World. There will be no cript, no editing, no performers."

In the search for a candidate, True Tv films people at random. In a bar, Ed's older brother Ray (Woody Harrelson) mugs for the cameras, but it is Ed who gets elected. (Ed sports a beer bottle attached to his neck by a string. You see the type).

There are minor technical complications as Ed is always followed by three teams, plus a director inside a large TV truck. Shades of Big Brother, fixed cameras are all over his house --with one exception, the Sanctum Sanctorum bathroom. More importantly, loud-mouthed brother Ray who plays the field, has just cheated on his current girl  Shari (Jenna Elfman), who delivers for UPS and is also a loser, that is, in her affairs with men. But now Ed and Shari fall in love --and it's all on millions of TV screen across the USA.

The plot thickens. The movie alternates between, or combines the actual EDtv program. This.  of course involves Ed's family and all others around him; the cameramen, the sound-people, he crowds watching and reacting to the TV screens, the producers at Real TV... Technically, it's  cleverly done.

There are good bits and pieces throughout. Amusing television talk-shows are like Chinese boxes since they are within television which is within the movie we watch. In the shows  pundits make comments on the EDtv phenomenon. Among them are Michael Moore, George Plimpton and Bill Maher who make fun of themselves, and Arianna Huffington who does not. Yet in the medium run, if not before, some medium-tedium sets in. Those audiences who are like me and the friends I saw the film with become listless. And even the better parts get often lost in the overall morass.

A major episode involves ambitious actress Jill (model Elizabeth Hurley) who puts the make on Ed in order to advance her career. She disappears, then is hired by True TV to seduce Ed. Throngs jam Jill's street. Ed succumb and sex begins (but no nudity, no consumation) as the cameras look on. For all practical purposes, the couple are porno stars, in what may be the climax (pardon the expression) of the story.

What surfaces sure as shootin' is that we all have our secrets. Ed lives at home with his brother (who seems to have additional digs), his sister (who has a funny affair), mama Jeanette (Sally  Kirkland) and his loving, ailing stepfather Al (Martin Landau) who married Jeanette after the boys' biological father, no-goodnik  Hank,  ran out. Hank, presumed dead, suddenly reappears.  Dennis Hopper plays him as a sad sack in a touching, stretched-out cameo.  This leads to more complications of a farcical or black-humorous type, with quid pro quos, and secrets and lies revealed, down to the finish line.

The moral of the film is stridently simple and painfully familiar. No matter who and what you are, if you get on the tube, you become famous. Famous means popular.  Popular means admired.

I remember some cases that go back several years. Certain individual had become famous because of their infamies, and whe later they became candidates for office (in the Southwest, I believe) they were elected over normally decent folks.

That the media are corrupt is old news, or that they act as an Invasion of Body Sntachers. But what the movie tells us too is that the public's taste is zilch, that the Jerry Springer ethos prevails, that the I.Q. of the masses is even lower than a sloth's or a lemur's. Since scientists may dispute this comparison, perhaps I should say a chicken's.

For all its comedic intentions, the picture boils down to illustrating the triumph of sub-mediocrity . The kind you see when Jay Leno (whose show is included in the picture) interviews strangers on the street. The kind that in talk-shows, when the "Applause" sign comes on, makes studio audiences knee-jerkily obey it.

A positive note. All  performances are first-rate. My favorite show-stealers are Dennis Hopper and, in his small but ever so ingeniously humorous part, and Martin Landau who seems to laugh at his own character as he makes cracks about his impending death.  Ellen DeGeneres is now much better off out of the closet. She can have roles that mean something.

I would not discourage anyone from seeing this picture, even though its gratification is merely instant. There's no residue, no aftertaste. You don't go home thinking about the film. And I doubt that it's among the pictures you'll want to see again. After all, what EDtv says to us is : "Hey, movie audiences, you laugh at the idiot public, but this public is you!"

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel