TV or Not TV?

"I hope it's better than The Truman Show," said the woman in line behind me at the publicized sneak preview of EDtv. Afterward a man in my row declared, "That was a lot better than The Truman Show." Pretentious high-concept films such as The Truman Show often garner accolades and let down audiences. EDtv, another film about a man who lives his life on-camera, isn't my favorite kind of movie either. It gets caught between shriveling satire and upbeat family entertainment, and it runs a half-hour too long. But EDtv has funny stretches and agreeably loose performances, while all The Truman Show gives us is Jim Carrey under glass. At its best EDtv suggests that manufacturers of big-screen sitcoms, who are merely trying to do a proficient job of entertaining, come closer to the fabric of American life than artistes who are trying to make a statement. At its worst it proves that even a light parody needs a more astringent point of view than the belief that love conquers all.

Unlike the hero of The Truman Show, the star of EDtv knows that he's on television: In exchange for a hefty payment, he allows producers for the San Francisco-based True TV cable channel to broadcast his life live, 24 hours a day. The prime mover of the series, a True TV executive (Ellen DeGeneres), acknowledges her show's predecessors (PBS's An American Family, MTV's The Real World), but intends to go beyond them. She vows to present uncensored, unedited action: She hopes to rouse interest in a lineup so tired that the Gardening Channel beats it regularly in the ratings. In Capraesque fashion, this whip-smart exec eventually develops a guilty conscience, but until then DeGeneres brings more snap to her lines than she did on her own TV show. And the filmmakers behind EDtv keep pace with Websurfers who've seen real-life chronicles unfolding in real time on the Internet.

After the squeaky clean The Truman Show, it comes as a relief that EDtv doesn't duck the obvious questions, like what happens when the hero goes to the bathroom, or has sex. (As it works out, he gets private time to relieve himself, but not to make love.) Ed Pekurny (Matthew McConaughey) doesn't set out to be a TV star. He gets discovered when he attempts to bolster the chances of his exhibitionist brother Ray (Woody Harrelson) during an audition taping at a San Francisco bar. What's pleasing is the comic spectacle of Ed, his folks, the team at True TV, and the people in the audience responding in valiant, goofy, sappy, and vain ways to a dehumanizing process. What's frustrating is the moviemakers' tendency to force them all into sitcom "closure" without taking the characters to the limit.

The most pungent elements of the movie are the brothers' relationship, the casting of McConaughey and Harrelson, and their interplay as performers. Ray, who services video equipment, is an out-and-out loon; Ed clerks at a North Beach video store and is a covert loon with sly seductive powers. If director Ron Howard and screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel had used these two guys' chemistry to fuel the film, instead of diluting it with halfhearted romance and broad turns about families behaving badly, they might have ended up with a fraternal love/hate classic instead of a mildly diverting burlesque.

The filmmakers have a handle on the symbiotic relationship in which an apparent lout like Ray and a seemingly sensitive soul like Ed really are mates under the skin. Ray is a hustler and an easy lay. He ridicules his sister and her inept lounge-singer boyfriend just to juice up his brother's show; he seizes every chance to promote his dream of establishing "Ray's Gym"; and he immediately takes advantage of his newfound fame by cheating on his girlfriend Shari (Jenna Elfman). Yet he doesn't mean to hurt anybody.

Ray thinks "Edtv" is the family's ticket out of Nowhereland. After all, Ray and Ed are two guys in their thirties who just clock their time at work, shoot pool, drink beer, and keep trim for a fight that never comes. Any break in the limbo must be a sign of hope. Ed is like Ray on Ritalin. Although he's more low-key, more centered, Ed has his own streak of showmanship: That's one reason DeGeneres and her gang like him. The Pekurnys hail from east Texas, and Ed demonstrates that he can turn his rural accent on or off like a wily country lawyer or a congressman.

Of course to enjoy the film at all you have to accept the sitcom logic that a good-looking fellow like Ed can quip as well as anyone at True TV and settle for a low-paying job at a video store. Still, EDtv is entertaining whenever Harrelson and McConaughey team up or face off. Whether as Larry Flynt or as the Life Force in The Hi-Lo Country, Harrelson embodies both the humor and the danger of relentless push. As Ray he manages to be a lovable egomaniac. He acts as if he believes that it's his duty to be a cartoon stud, even if he's smart enough to know that the role is self-destructive. His skewed glare, like a bent laser, contrasts uproariously with McConaughey's sweet gleam as Ed. McConaughey seemed to find his celluloid footing in last year's The Newton Boys, and in EDtv he appears at home as a modest man who sees the fun in exploitation and is briefly blinded by it. Both as an actor and as Ed the budding TV character, he knows how to take genuine titillation or delight and italicize it for the camera to potent farcical effect. He expresses the unruly streaks in common decency.

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