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EDtv expands the Truman doctrine

By Peter Keough

MARCH 29, 1999:  No rerun of The Truman Show, Ron Howard's EDtv is more the same theme with variations. Although less lofty in its ambitions than Weir's genial nightmare, it's also funnier and features performances that are among the best of the outstanding cast's careers. A surprisingly shrewd and fresh assessment of the state of the media and the pathology of celebrity, it's Ron Howard in classy Apollo 13 mode, with laughs.

Some of those laughs are in dubious taste -- screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandell are, after all, the team who brought the diaper mirth to Howard's Parenthood. Yet there's something raunchily charming and symbolically apt about the way the first thing Ed Pekurny (a goofy, canny, winning Matthew McConaughey) does when he wakes up to the debut of the 24-hour national TV broadcast of his life is to grab his woody (other phallic references, though, tend to get wearily dysfunctional).

The show, EDtv, is the brainchild of Cynthia Topping (Ellen DeGeneres, enjoying her first decent movie role), the program director of floundering True TV, who's desperate to save her station and her job (add Network to the list of movies drawn on). Auditioning subjects in a local bar, she picks Ed out of the crowd -- he's the one with the beer tied around his neck and the obnoxious brother Ray (Woody Harrelson). An aging slacker working at a video store, he seems perfect for the part. As one of the characters puts it later, he's not famous because he's special, he's special because he's famous.

EDtv's concept has origins beyond The Truman Show or even the obscure French-Canadian film Louis XIX that both are indebted to. Howard's acknowledged inspiration, Frank Capra, had newswoman Barbara Stanwyck serving as Pygmalion to Gary Cooper's down-and-out cipher in Meet John Doe (1941). And Elia Kazan pitched Howard's old Mayberry crony Andy Griffith as a hillbilly jailbird groomed for media stardom by Patricia Neal in A Face in the Crowd (1957). EDtv doesn't imitate these predecessors by making its hero a spokesman for the benighted common man and a victim of the oppressive establishment. Ed's predicament is existential rather than political -- validated as real by fame, he finds his individuality eroding the more it's exposed to the media eye.

Worried that shots of Ed paring his toenails aren't going to add to ratings, the show's handlers and viewers rejoice as he finally kisses his brother's girlfriend, Shari (a winsome but tough Jenna Elfman), adding to the banality of real life the narrative momentum of dramatic conflict. As that development unravels his current relationships, the sudden appearance of his biological father, Hank (Dennis Hopper subdued in woeful, barfly mode), undermines his past. In a different spin on another Truman motif, Ed learns that pretty much everything his mother, Jeanette (Sally Kirkland, who's part Shelley Winters, part Mrs. Havisham), told him about his life is wrong.

Given this void, and the dropping public-approval rating for the blue-collar Shari in a USA Today poll, he welcomes for a while the tawdry evanescence of celebrity: the fan clubs, the stints on Leno (a big-screen moratorium on whom is in order), the hot date with supermodel Jill (Elizabeth Hurley) watched by fans who hold their breath waiting for its consummation. He's poised for the inevitable fall -- a literal one in this case -- and some backstage (in fact, even the behind-the-scenes network strategy sessions are televised) friction arises when the show's popularity dips and Cynthia opposes the heavy-handed schemes of her boss, Whitaker (Rob Reiner hilariously crass as the sardonic voice of reason), to tweak the melodrama. Not that Ed's integrity is ever in doubt: though the show is set in San Francisco, he hails from East Texas. That this image of the unassailability of basic Middle American values has become another media construct is not much examined, and neither are the other issues -- where does life begin and mass-consumed images leave off? why are average people so drawn to a simalcrum of their own lives? -- EDtv blithely brings up.

Which is just as well -- the movie would collapse if it had to acknowledge that it's an example of the same fabrication it parodies. This innocence allows Howard to create some genuinely touching scenes, as when Ed, his family life in ruins, embraces his stepdad, Al (Martin Landau, hilarious and underused), who futilely tries to wave off the cameras. It's left to the viewer to decide whether anything would remain if the camera actually looked away.

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