The Opie Show

Tube tied: Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in Ron Howard's EdTV

area theaters, starts Friday

A couple of years back, Woody Allen, Ron Howard, and a few other culprits must have ended up in Directors' Detention one afternoon--you know, the place where they send filmmakers who commit artistic misdemeanors such as "Too Many Voiceovers," "Abuse of Morphing Effects," "Lame Black/Female Characters," and "Unconscious Pedophilia." The assignment that afternoon must have been something like this: "Make a movie that explains what you think about the relationship between television, fame, and personal identity in today's American society."

Either that or we've simply got a fad on our hands. (See also: The Truman Show, Celebrity, Pecker, and, to a lesser degree, Pleasantville.) Doesn't anyone talk to each other in Hollywood? Or do they talk too much? Is there a swingers' club for script readers? Ron Howard's EdTV, starring the horrifyingly telegenic Matthew McConaughey, is the newest--and least assuming--of the celebrity-movie bunch. Thank God for that last point. There's something to be said for the director who knows his limitations, and at least Howard doesn't punish us with muddled attempts at depth. (Funny, though, that a guy who grew up on TV wouldn't have more insight on the topic.) EdTV is an amusing, lightweight flick that fails to transcend its dopey characters (unlike, say, Celebrity). I laughed a lot, but the phony butter on my eight-dollar popcorn stuck with me longer than the movie. Big surprise.

This particular twist on the man-and-media debate involves Ed (McConaughey), a guileless video-store clerk who is chosen to take part in an experiment hatched by a cable TV exec (Ellen DeGeneres). A team of camcorder guys videotapes Ed's life, all day and without editing--following him to work, to his mom's house, on dates, etc. At first Ed's life is a bore: He proudly shows off his hubcap collection and a mirror he's got rigged next to the toilet so he can watch the big game on the pot. He goes to work, and he goes drinking with his brother (Woody Harrelson), a Zubas-wearing meathead. Yes, Ed's life does eventually heat up, thanks to a pert gal played by Jenna Elfman and a sinister network head (Rob Reiner) who tries to lock Ed into an indefinite contract.

Meanwhile, we glimpse other stereotypical Americans around the country getting hooked on Ed (the sexist Latino fry cooks, the gay yuppies, the swooning dorm girls, etc.)--and their minor dramas and twitches become part of the story, too. Throughout, celebrity cameos compete for our attention with a stunning parade of un-ironic product placement. Average Ed becomes so famous that even his cameramen are stars, and so the debate begins in the media: What is the significance of this? The obvious answer is offered: People are no longer famous because they're special; they're special because they're famous. Fame is its own good.

But why? That question remains unasked and unanswered. One friend recently theorized that Americans' fascination with stars, and media soaps like Monicagate, is a sign of premillennial spiritual anxiety, a distraction--and the emptier the better--from bigger, less tangible worries. And certainly, biography shows like VH1's Behind the Music feed the hungers of those who've never quite mastered the American Dream themselves. Our mystical faith in technology plays a role, too: Stars are the anointed ones, marked as "real" by the camera, the printing press, the TV.

Maybe there's more to it--something EdTV almost addresses. Americans complain that our culture is too fragmented, that we lack a sense of community. But try leaving the country for a year or so. Lose track of the media shitstorm, the famous faces, names, and divorces. When you return, step into any grocery line and you'll see that America is far more unified than we think. Knowing these names, faces, and love affairs can make a person feel (however falsely) part of something bigger--a central nervous system that connects us all psychically.

Perhaps EdTV is trying to express that by showing various shiny, happy Americans watching their idiot boxes together. If so, that's pretty creepy. Let's face it: This is a movie about celebrity made by celebrities. And underneath it all, one senses, it's just another example of Hollywood promoting itself, and the fact that the entertainment industry has us by our scrawny psychic balls. As DeGeneres's character observes, celebrities may be ugly, boring, or stupid, but they're like a car crash. You don't want to look and yet you can't look away.

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