Someone more perceptive than I recently pointed out that the trouble with "The Truman Show" was that he led the dullest of all possible lives. We couldn't watch him in bed, in the bathroom, in conflict least of all, and so it made for a film that had no core.
"EdTV" has, among other virtues, the open acknowledgment that bathrooms are a part of life, and that sex is also a part of life. It's the kind of film that "The Truman Show" might have been had it had the courage to deal with real life. It's also a very funny comedy. A cable network -- True TV -- which by its own admission is losing viewers to the Gardening Channel ("We don't even have enough money in the budget for coffee filters -- we're using a yarmulke") comes up with the sleazy/great idea of doing live TV of a person's real, true life, warts and all.
They choose a 31-year-old San Francisco video store clerk named Ed Pekurny (Matthew McConaughey), who is already saddled with a terminally hyper brother (Woody Harrelson in a role that fits him like a glove) and various family members who really shouldn't see the light of day. Ed also has a crush on his brother's girl Sheri (Jenna Elfman, who could pass for Renée Zellweger's twin sister). The stunt is masterminded by network producer Ellen DeGeneres, who is far and away the brightest person around, and the film is off and running. It turns out that all of America quickly becomes entranced by Ed's life, by his brother's compulsive philandering, by Ed's and Sheri's slowly finding each other, by -- well, by all the little parts of our lives that we think belong only to us. And we, too, join that audience. The writing is nicely expert (by the team of Lowell Ganz and Babalu Mandel, who've written many Billy Crystal films).
The film meets our expectations, something "Truman" didn't do, but it rarely exceeds them except in the kind of sidelights and running gags that punctuate the film. When we first see Ed on television, there's a low-budget sponsor bar across the bottom of the frame that rotates advertisers like the local chicken takeout place, the dry cleaner, and the travel agency. Later, when the show takes the country by storm, the advertisers range from Pepsi to Yahoo to -- in a good piece of timing -- Trojans. There's even a bus billboard that reads "True TV Gives Good Ed."
The buildup of the romance between Ed and Sheri is believable, and works in the context of having to live with making one's private life more public than Clinton's, but by the start of the last half-hour we're just waiting to see how Ganz and Mandel are going to resolve the show, get the lovers back together, and find an upbeat ending. They do, but we wish they hadn't taken so long. The direction, by Ron Howard, is more than adequate. He doesn't step on lines or gags, he puts his cameras in the right place (lots of video footage shot simultaneously with the film), and he keeps his actors in character with no breaks. DeGeneres is superb as the voice of reason at the network, the show's instigator and then its killer. McConaughey and Elfman do well, and there is a little gem of an understated performance by Dennis Hopper, as Ed's long-lost dad. All in all, a very fine comedy for this spring season.