EDTV, THE DISARMING, DISPOSABLE COMEDY FROM director Ron Howard, is too moth-eaten to be called new — it's a sitcom refurbished as big-screen entertainment. Its story of unlikely celebrity isn't well put together or smart, but the script by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel is funny enough, the ensemble professional, and the film's star, Matthew McConaughey as the titular overgrown Teletubby, abundantly watchable. The plotline is the least of it: An executive (Ellen DeGeneres) at a struggling network decides to put the life of a regular guy on TV as the ultimate in truth television, though without the scatological and hardcore interludes that would have made the movie a little menacing, or real. Instead of showing McConaughey nailing co-star Jenna Elfman or waxing philosophical on the can like some Panhandle Leopold Bloom, the filmmakers opt for a safer, more self-interested course in the perils of celebrity.
As expected, Ed's life is a hit and he becomes a star, but there are complications — his girlfriend gets lousy ratings, his family can't cope, and the fans are starting to spin as much out of control as the network suits. Ed, meanwhile, starts to make like Tom Cruise, and so does McConaughey. The publicity machine has been tirelessly trumpeting the actor's potential since his debut in Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused, and celebrating his stardom since his leading turn two years later in the detestable Joel Schumacher thriller A Time To Kill. But McConaughey has never seemed big or talented enough to warrant all the fuss, much less to hold the screen. Here, as he goes through the stages of celebrity — from dazzlement to resentment — genially rubbing sparks off everyone and everything he touches, you can't keep your eyes off him. He's irresistible.
Elfman, Martin Landau and especially Woody Harrelson as Ed's older brother are also appealing, in a more mortal kind of way, but they don't have much to do beyond lobbing the occasional quip and loitering in McConaughey's shadow. The rest of the film is pretty flabby — a tepid social critique interspersed with jokes, too much Jay Leno, some calisthenics with Elizabeth Hurley, and even a discreetly squashed cat, Howard's half-hearted attempt to prove he's as much a good time as the Farrelly brothers. Of course, the director of soft-pedaling distractions like Splash and Cocoon and inflated epics like Apollo 13 isn't as self-deprecating as the Farrellys, or as much fun. And while he has some talent for coordinating ensembles of actors, it's Howard's lack of style — visual style, but also grace and timing — that finally keeps EDtv from becoming something more than a mild romp, something with teeth.
But even baby teeth might tear at the conceit of the movie, which, for all its laughs and minor charms, is finally about how tough it is to be famous. Curiously, that's exactly what Howard's last film, the Mel Gibson vehicle Ransom, was about. Which makes you wonder: Is celebrity the problem, or is it the sheer numbers of celebrities that have inspired this vainglorious worry in Hollywood? After all, when fellating the president is rewarded with a one-on-one with Barbara Walters, it's clear that celebrity is no longer the exclusive club it once was; now anyone can join, even a fat girl from the wrong side of Beverly Hills. Instead of being a critique of celebrity, EDtv — which was made by people who are famous themselves — comes across as a warning shot to the rest of us who would be stars: Watch out! Fame is dangerous for your health, and ours.
EDtv | Directed by RON HOWARD | Written by LOWELL GANZ and BABALOO MANDEL Released by Universal | Citywide