Better Ed Than Dead
Like the telephone before it, television has been an instrument for overcoming American loneliness. Think of the farm wives of a century ago who suddenly could hear another voice without having to travel into town. And now think of the windows of today's city apartments late at night, flickering in rows with the little screen's light. Even piled on top of one another, we're alone--and are all the more willing to be so, knowing that Leno or Captain Picard will come to visit without fail. That's technology for you: It aggravates what it relieves.
Ron Howard understands this better than you or I, because television made him. He came of age playing a lovable kid with a Southern accent; and now that he's grown up and switched to film and become a high-ticket director, he has revisited the enabling, disabling tube. In EDtv, aided by writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, he tells the story of television's effect on another funny kid with a Southern drawl.
The new boy should have grown up a while ago but didn't. Though now in his early 30s, he still dresses much as he did in high school, has no companion steadier than a pool-shooting buddy and for a living clerks in a video store, where he raises the employees' median age by twelve years. This case of arrested development is Ed (Matthew McConaughey); and when television enters his life directly, it does not do so to make him lovable. According to Cynthia (Ellen DeGeneres), a program developer for the San Francisco-based True TV channel, Ed deserves to be given real-time, twenty-four-hour-a-day stardom because he's like a wreck you pass on the highway. You look his way because you hope and fear to see a severed head.
Such is the premise of EDtv, which outwardly might be confused with The Truman Show, or Albert Brooks's Real Life. Inwardly, though, EDtv feels like The Revenge of Opie. Or is it a revenge on Opie?
In effect, that fictive double of Ron Howard has moved from network and the rural past into cable and the modern city, where omnipresent cameras reveal his Mayberry folks to be a gallery of grotesques. His brother (Woody Harrelson) would eat roadkill and feel clever about it, having saved some money; his mother (Sally Kirkland) couldn't tell you the time of day without lying; his stepfather (Martin Landau), a violator of every standard of Southern propriety, has been assembled from the spare parts of old Jewish bathroom jokes; and his biological father (whose face should not be revealed too soon) has about one day job between himself and the men's shelter. Ed himself differs from these people only in being sweet-natured. That's difference enough for him to seem comforting to millions of viewers, for whom he's the televised visitor as lowest common denominator.
Television relieves loneliness; television enforces loneliness. To the people who watch Ed day and night, the main action lies in his blossoming romance with a perky UPS driver named Shari (Jenna Elfman). Cynthia's cameras unexpectedly bring Ed and Shari together; but then, by their presence, the cameras rule out further intimacy. So the TV show forbids what it promises, becoming a drama of sexual and emotional frustration, followed by people who forgo their own sexual and emotional lives for the pleasure of watching Ed's. Can television solve this problem of its own creation? Of course not--but it can simulate a solution. It contrives a new, fake intimacy for Ed, using an actress (Elizabeth Hurley) who always knows which of the cameras has the red light.
Much of the fun of EDtv comes from seeing how Ed and the other characters play to the television camera, treating it as accomplice, mirror, confidante, intruder, conduit or billboard. So would you; so would we all. Another part of the fun comes from the performers--particularly McConaughey and Elfman, who are blessed with the looks of stars and the dispositions of character actors. You will perhaps forgive the movie for offering yet another representation of humanity as tall, thin and blond, given the way these two get lost in one another, to the point that they seem oblivious of being gorgeous. (This turns into an explicit joke with Elfman, who ordinarily makes her living as a sexy TV star. Midway through the film, her Shari is judged to be insufficiently sexy to live on TV.) Moving outward to the frame story, we also get the pleasure of seeing Ellen DeGeneres fume and fast-talk her way through the role of the mysteriously celibate Cynthia: someone who is too female to succeed in TV, the medium to which (unfortunately) she is perfectly adapted.
Jump outward again, past the frame story, and you're in the real world of Ron Howard. He turns out to be a great jumper of frames himself. Howard moves along EDtv in glides and near-invisible cuts, which shuttle you fluently between the action inside the TV set and events outside; and with each crossover, he provides a small jolt of recognition. (Cynthia, who ought to know better, protests when she sees herself on video: "I don't sound like that. Do I?") Howard's command of mainstream movie technique has never been surer; his artistic ambitions (though no higher than before) are engaged with a new immediacy. He's found something he cares about, some reason to connect with an audience.
Take it as faint praise if you must, but EDtv is Ron Howard's best film.