Big Media has been warning us about Big Media since the dawn of Big Media, but rarely has the warning been as nonchalant as it is in Ron Howard's EDtv. The story of a guy who allows his life to be broadcast around the clock and around the world, EDtv can't help but remind us of The Truman Show. The difference, of course, is that Ed (Matthew McConaughey) allows his life to be broadcast; Truman doesn't even know he's the star of his own television program. Alas, it's the difference that makes all the difference. Instead of a dystopian fable, we get...what? A light comedy, and not a particularly funny one. Faced with one of the most powerful social forces of our time (that one-eyed monster, television), EDtv remains as genially unperturbed as Ed himself, a 31-year-old video-store clerk who takes to having his whole life videotaped the way a fish takes to water. Heck, even Mr. Ed flubbed his lines on occasion. One might have thought that Howard, who literally grew up on television, would have a few things to get off his chest. And the movie does try to zero in on the way fame can transform one's life. But it's so lacking in bite, so determined to please, that it barely leaves a mark at all. Instead of dying to get on TV (which would have made more sense), Ed just kind of falls into it, goaded by his brother, Ray (Woody Harrelson), who's perhaps an even dimmer bulb than Ed is. We're supposed to believe that Ed's a natural performer--just cute enough, just nice enough, just hammy enough to keep people watching. The way the role's conceived, Ed's an average guy, a Joe Six-Pack, complete with an open can of beer strung around his neck. But he's really just a patsy, put there so that scriptwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel can score points off a barn-sized target: network television executives. Rob Reiner plays one of them, and he's hysterical--smug one moment, smugly obsequious the next. Ellen DeGeneres is funny, too, as the program director who realizes, almost too late, that Ed's life has become a televised nightmare. And Martin Landau is both funny and touching as Ed's one-foot-in-the-grave stepfather, Al. These performances, which take up little screen time, suggest what might have been if the filmmakers had allowed the movie to slide into satire and stay there. Then again, maybe not: The rest of Ed's family, who seem to have been recruited off "The Jerry Springer Show," are about as funny as a trailer-park tornado. (Harrelson overacts to compensate for his underwritten role.) Howard doesn't seem to realize how condescending his portrait of an average guy and his below-average family is. "We're not as dumb as you people think we are," Ed tells someone. Wanna bet?
After The Truman Show, To Die For, King of Comedy, Network and, looking way back, A Face in the Crowd (which starred Andy Griffith as an Ed-like good ol' boy who becomes a cathode-ray tyrant), it's disappointing that EDtv goes after television with kid gloves--disappointing, too, that it makes all the obvious choices. Why does Ed have to become famous? And why does his televised life have to turn into such a soap opera? In form, if not in content, Ed's TV show is closer to those Webcam Internet sites like jennicam.org and johncamlive.com than to, say, "The Real World." Washington, D.C.'s Jennifer Ringley has been beaming her life out to anyone who cares to watch since 1996--a Warhol film that makes Empire look like a mere snippet of celluloid. And the point, as in a Warhol film, is that nothing much ever happens. C'est la vie. In the future, we'll all be so busy performing, there won't be anyone left to watch.