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Just a Sitcom

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Directed by Ron Howard

Written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel Based on the screenplay “Louis 19, le Roi des Ondes” by Emile Gaudreault and Sylvie Bouchard

With Matthew McConaughey, Jenna Elfman, Ellen DeGeneres, Woody Harrelson, Martin Landau, Rob Reiner, Elizabeth Hurley

EDtv leaves behind a better impression than the film, given its unoriginality, probably should. EDtv director Ron Howard is first and foremost a skillful Hollywood craftsman. With nary a flash of brilliance, his movies invariably display their solid workmanlike qualities. Albeit, his last two films didn’t fit this mold at all -- Apollo 13 soared, while Ransom was repugnant and exploitative -- with EdTV, Howard returns to his usual form.

Any other year, this would not be a compliment; but in 1999, it is. With all worthwhile movies that one can catch now being either holdover or late releases, this year’s slate is represented by such abominations as She's All That and Analyze This. Therefore, it hardly comes as a shock that when a movie’s only accomplishment is to make no major creative blunders, it is automatically considered head and shoulders above the usual multiplex dreck. There’s not a single aspect of the movie which is either memorable or original; on the other hand, thankfully, there's nothing groan-inducing either.

EDtv is the story of a lovable lout Ed Pekurny (Matthew McConaughey), who is to be filmed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for a reality-based show called True TV. “But that’s The Truman Show!”, I hear you cry. Well, no. Ed knows he’s being filmed, not only because he gave his consent, but also because there’s half a dozen sweaty guys running around him with TV cameras and boom mikes.

Very soon, Ed becomes a major celebrity, with his cult status reaching country-wide proportions. As such, his dealings with his family, his brother (Woody Harrelson), his brother’s girlfriend (Jenna Elfman), and his other friends and relatives, all change.

There are many directions where this story idea could have headed. We could have a biting satire on the burgeoning fascination with the institution of celebrity; we could have a dark exploration of invasion into personal privacy; we could have a rollicking farce, with the clever notion of live TV broadcast being a direct influence on the events being transmitted. I guess, all of these ideas are present in EDtv, in some vague diluted shape or form. But the movie doesn’t really go for any of these. It is simply a feature-length sitcom. It even looks like one, with thoroughly unremarkable costumes and art direction.

And it’s not a sharp-eyed, deconstructionalistic kind of a sitcom, the way Pleasantville was. This one is merely content to put its characters through the relaxed paced of an amusing comedy, with really nothing to offend anyone (the only negatively portrayed character, a TV studio honcho played by Rob Reiner, is a bare-bones caricature), and really nothing to say.

Watching EDtv is not unpleasant; quite the opposite, I had two solid hours of good time. Howard’s direction is quite unremarkable, but he manages to stage a few good shots, mostly involving creative cutting from the scene to the same scene on a TV screen and back. There are also a few relatively serious moments in the screenplay, some of which feel artificial, and some work.

And then of course there’s the acting. Again, it’s mostly just proficient, but two of the performers should be proud of their work here. Both McConaughey and Elfman give engagingly nuanced portrayals, which are even more surprising since they start the movie as caricatures, portraying their characters in really wide brush-strokes. But by the end, they manage to completely fill their characters, and what’s remarkable is that none of these nuances contradict the wide-eyed lovable losers they were playing in the beginning.

EDtv is certainly enjoyable to watch. Only after the film is over, and one can think about it, several things come to mind which can change one’s opinion about it. At first, it’s not really in the same weight category as the first two millennial zeitgeist “TV is Life!” movies of last year, The Truman Show and Pleasantville. There are some striking parallels between these three, mostly involving the climactic attempts of the characters to escape being locked inside the boob tube. And, compared with those two, EDtv is weightless to the point of disappearance.

Another problem is with the story. There’s no arguing that this film tries to show a contrast between the bright and cheerful ambiance of a TV show and the more somber feel of real life; but the script, scene after scene after scene, keeps returning to simplistically sitcom-like characters and conflicts. In a word, what passes for Ed’s private life feels so artificial and scripted already, that it’s very hard to make a point of its superiority over TV.