McConaughey leads sublime cast as reluctant subject of "EDtv"
"EDtv" doesn't pass on a single opportunity for a laugh. A light satire about an earnest Everyman picked to be the subject of a 24-7 cable TV show, even when its cuts away to a shot of the show's nervous director holed up in a broadcast van, the camera zooms in for a tight shot of his bad hair plugs as he yells into his headset.
The first comedy in 14 years from director Ron Howard ("Ransom," Apollo 13," "Splash"), and by far his funniest, "EDtv" stars Matthew McConaughey as Ed, an affable San Francisco video store clerk who becomes a national sensation as the star of his own always-on "Real World"-like cable network after winning a contest he never planned to enter.
Put up to it by his perpetual frat boy brother (the ideally cast Woody Harrelson) -- who sees the show as a chance to be somebody and show off his beautiful girlfriend, Sheri (Jenna Elfman) -- Ed starts his first day on nation-wide TV with a camera crew in his bedroom sending out live feed of him scratching morning wood while still half asleep. Before he gets used to the cameras, he's also caught checking out his ass on his TV and introduces his friends and family to his meager but growing audience.
McConaughey couldn't be more perfect for the role of Ed, a homespun and handsome transplanted Texan who takes his potential notoriety in stride until it begins to wreak havoc on his life, and especially his love life.
A few days into the broadcast, he drops in on his brother and, hearing a girl's voice coming from the bedroom, asks "Is that Sheri?"
"Who's Sheri?!?" a naked girl demands of Harrelson, followed immediately by his telephone ringing insistently. Sheri, it seems, has been watching the show.
Ed, stand-up guy that he is, runs over to Sheri's to apologize for his brother and one thing leads to another. Cut to a shot of Harrelson watching his brother kiss his girlfriend live on national television.
Howard regularly cuts away to a several groups of viewers, designed to serve as a surrogate audience and diversify his whiteberad cast. Frequently featured fans glued to the show include a gay Soho couple, a pair of black suburbanites whose marriage gets rocky over the wife's EDtv addiction, and a gaggle of jammie-clad sorority chicks who root wildly for the budding romance between Ed and Sheri.
While such elements are not the only thing "EDtv" has in common with last summer's inventive and astute "The Truman Show," this picture is pure entertainment. It doesn't share that movie's ominous sociological context, even when it does speak to the society's rampant voyeurism, in part because Ed is a willing participant -- at least in the beginning.
At first the show's ratings don't look very promising, which serves as a catalyst for the best performance in the movie -- Ellen DeGeneres as EDtv's desperate producer, going out on a limb with this show in a gamble to save her job. She is the perfect supporting player and get many of the movie's best laughs with her droll delivery.
DeGeneres reports to Rob Reiner, who does a pristine parody of a heartless network executive that refuses to let Ed out of his contract and begins to manipulate the show for ratings.
Howard's other casting choices are just as impeccable. Elizabeth Hurley plays a celebrity-glomming sexpot, all lip gloss and cleavage, brought on by Reiner to get Ed laid after Sheri cracks under the pressure and moves away, leaving him heartbroken.
Ed's absentee father comes calling in the person of Dennis Hopper, and his mother and step-dad are played by Sally Kirkland and Martin Landau.
The story arch of "EDtv" is fairly predicable — Ed must inevitably get fed up with his celebrity, fight the network for his freedom (it's a little hard to sympathize with someone who's such a rube he doesn't read his contract before signing) and win Sheri back for a happy ending.
The movie degenerates somewhat in the last 20 minutes when DeGeneres finds a conscience and the story turns too warm and fuzzy, becoming obvious and pandering with "solution" that is just too neat and tidy for the circumstances.
Howard is also far too fond of demonstrating the show's growing reach through custom clips from "The Tonight Show," "Politically Incorrect," et al. This technique is as trite as the old fashioned spinning newspaper headlines that it has replaced.
But petty qualms aside, "EDtv" is a terrifically well-crafted picture. Sub-plots and incidental characters (like the audience members) are agilely balanced with the charming romance and Ed's central conflict with celebrity.
Ultimately, though, it's the sublime cast that makes this movie. McConaughey is at his most congenial doing that subtle Southern charm thing he does so well. Elfman is so adorable and endearing I wanted to kiss her as much as Ed did, and Harrelson just goes to town as the party-on sibling while exposing his insecurities on the sly.
This is the best clean fun I've had at the movies so far this year.