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Dustin Putman

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Ed TV (1999)
2 Stars

Directed by Ron Howard
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jenna Elfman, Woody Harrelson, Ellen DeGeneres, Rob Reiner, Sally Kirkland, Martin Landau, Adam Goldberg, Elizabeth Hurley, Dennis Hopper, Clint Howard, Viveka Davis, Jennifer Elise Cox.
1999 – 120 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for profanity, brief nudity, and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, March 28, 1999.

Usually you can tell when you are watching a Ron Howard film, since they all have many things in common, including a large cast of characters put into a slick, smart screenplay that is enjoyable while at the same time always taking the "safe" route. And aside from his landmark motion picture from 1989, "Parenthood," Howard has never really proven to be a great filmmaker, but surely a good one. "Ed TV" is no exception, as it takes a premise that is similar to last year's more thought-provoking, superior Peter Weir drama, "The Truman Show" (a man who is being taped 24 hours a day and watched by all of America), but does not come off as any sort of rip-off since there are a few vital differences: Ed, unlike Truman, knows and agrees to be taped, and its overall mood relies more on comedy than drama, even though there are a few subtle, poignant moments that surprisingly do pack a wallop.

Ed (Matthew McConaughey) is a 31-year-old video store clerk living in San Francisco who, by chance, is seen by a cable television station, Real TV, that is interviewing people for the arduous, but well-paying, job of having their lives taped around the clock. Ed's show-off older brother, Ray (Woody Harrelson), was actually the one auditioning, but it is Ed who catches the eye of program director Cynthia Topping (a scene-stealing Ellen DeGeneres). After a brief meeting, Ed is hired, and his family, including his mother (Sally Kirkland) and wheelchair-bound stepfather (Martin Landau), are somewhat cautious but nonetheless see it as a way for Ed to get out of his dead-end job at the video store. The show starts off rockily as the first image viewers see is of Ed waking up and scratching his privates, but ratings start to pick up when it is discovered on national television that Ray is cheating on his sweety-pie fiancee, Shari (Jenna Elfman), and Ed's true feelings come out when he ends up comforting, and then ultimately kissing, her. Quickly, being on television constantly begins to put an inevitable strain on their very unprivate relationship, and Shari becomes discouraged to find that many viewers think Ed could do a lot better than her.

The entertainment value of "Ed TV" is due, in part, by its intriguing storyline, as well as in its voyeuristic approach to the subject matter of someone's life being constantly recorded (save for when they go to the bathroom). In its first, and arguably most successful, half, is when most time is given to this simple quality, as we follow Ed around in his everyday life, as well as in his blossoming romance with Shari. Hampering the second half, even though it brings up several thoughtful statements about the price famous people have to pay, is a distracting subplot that comes about in the form of bombshell model, Jill (Elizabeth Hurley), who has obviously been hired to spice up Ed's love life. As the big night that America is awaiting arrives, when Ed is supposed to sleep with Jill, I had a difficult time believing that the caring Ed would do such a thing. Although Ed learns a vital piece of information about the media afterwards, Hurley is wasted in a needlessly one-dimensional role, and a whole minor storyline that could have been completely discarded. Fortunately, the film's final half-hour made a comeback from the penultimate section, with Ed discovering some shocking news about his family's history while trying to rekindle the flame with Shari, who still loves him.

In his first starring role in 1996's "A Time to Kill," Matthew McConaughey became a full-fledged star, but since then hasn't been able to come back with another totally satisfying role, until now. Unlike some of these recent pretty-boy actors who have become stars not necessarily because of talent, but because of looks (ahem, Brad Pitt), McConaughey has the acting chops to be successful, and with "Ed TV," I hope he makes his breakthrogh. Appropriately toned down from her giddy character on ABC's "Dharma and Greg," Jenna Elfman is a fresh face whom has a genuine innocence about her that works well with the screen. Meanwhile, Sally Kirkland and Martin Landau are both effective as Ed's parents, Woody Harrelson is often annoying, but in a good way, as his brother, while Dennis Hopper, as Ed's real-life father, must have been hired for a day's worth of work. The standout in "Ed TV," amongst all of the other strong performances, however, is Ellen DeGeneres, who, to me, at least, finally comes into her own as an accomplished actress. Her character of Cynthia is more complex than it first appears, and she goes through several distinct character transformations, as she discovers what she has been doing is heartless and uncaring, with much of the blame going to the station's backstabbing boss (Rob Reiner). Also appreciated is that Cynthia is not portrayed as a one-liner comedian, since she is played by DeGeneres, but instead as a real person.

Even though I hate to compare them once again since they are only alike in the most basic terms, "Ed TV" lacks the overall profoundity that made "The Truman Show" one of the better motion pictures of last year. Coming away from "Ed TV," I had spent two hours with a group of people I liked, and had some fun with its story, but it really isn't a film that will strongly stick with you for a long period of time. Director Howard has once again created a respectable, intelligent film, but one, to be sure, that prospers more while in the individual moments, rather than one that remains deeply ingrained in your long-term memory.

©1999 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman