TV or not TV?

Ron Howard fiddles with the question

Director Howard and writers Ganz and Mandel are at their sharpest when they draw the ways Ed's family and the public initially react to True TV. His mother (Sally Kirkland) turns theatrical (she sets visions of Blanche Du Bois spinning in DeGeneres' head), his frail stepdad (Martin Landau) remains determinedly down-to-earth (he tells Ed he'd yell for Ed's mom himself, but he'd die), and his mystery dad (Dennis Hopper) suddenly shows up at his door. At one point, someone pushes a promotional CD into Ed's hands and says his band has a blind guy in it and is called "Not All of Us Can See." For a while, the ensemble resembles the giddy everyday grotesques from a Preston Sturges movie.

Pundit-mania heats up: Harry Shearer, who performed a similar function in The Truman Show, hosts panels with the likes of Arianna Huffington and Michael Moore. And polling goes into overdrive. The videophiles who rooted for Elfman's Shari to dump Ray for Ed soon tell USA Today that she isn't good enough for him--they prefer Jill (Elizabeth Hurley), a glamorous aspiring actress. You can see why Shari, a strapping UPS gal without airs or illusions, finds Ed attractive and why she hooks up with him after Ray cheats on her.

It's too bad that their bond obstructs the comedy. For one thing, Ray ceases to be central to the action. And if that USA Today poll is one funny idea, it's also a dire turning point. Soon after it appears, Shari beats a retreat, Ed loses his bearings, his mom, dad, and stepdad grow nuttier, and the movie instructs us on what we already know about the wages of fame. Shari begins to symbolize unspoiled, media-free humanity.

Howard, Ganz, and Mandel have a Three Bears view of comic ingredients: nothing too cold, nothing too hot. (Even Shari learns to compromise.) So the director and his writers ultimately reduce the drama to Ed clearing his head and cementing his love with the people closest to him: Shari, Ray, and--since father-son rapprochement is key to family entertainment in the '90s--his stepdad Al.

EDtv sets up Ed as a man of the people, then flirts with portraying him as a victim of the people. It's the same sort of dead end Capra ran up against in Meet John Doe. Howard is a lot more deft at depicting the onlookers than Peter Weir was in The Truman Show; this movie's fluctuations mirror the fleeting allegiances of our media-permeated life more acutely than that pristine fantasy. But Howard still has a hard time persuading us that the TV masses will react positively to his film's happy ending.

To me, the film makes sense--perhaps inadvertently--as a fable about privacy in the era of Kenneth Starr. The True TV czar (Rob Reiner) decides he has unlimited access to Ed's life. His cameras uncover one family scandal after another, most of which come about via video entrapment. The public maintains a strained devotion to Ed even after he proves to be a hapless lover. The only way Ed can regain control of his life is with some Larry Flynt-like scandal-mongering of his own. The resolution leaves the House of Pekurny standing. By the end the movie audience, like the electorate, is less satisfied than strung-out and exhausted.

Directed by Ron Howard. Written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, from the 1994 French-Canadian movie, Louis XIX: Roi Des Ondes, written by Emile Gaudreault and Sylvie Bouchard. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jenna Elfman, Woody Harrelson, Sally Kirkland, Martin Landau, Ellen DeGeneres, and Rob Reiner. Opens Friday.

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