Published March 1, 1999
How on earth did Ron Howard hope to succeed where Peter Weir failed? Hubris, I suppose. Ron Howard’s done a guest shot on “The Simpsons” (along with those other giants of the silver screen, Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger) and Peter Weir hasn’t. But for those of us not giddy with success, however, the idea that Opie could do basically the same thing that Weir did in The Truman Show and look anything but bad in comparison is wildly delusional. But that is what he has done in Ed-TV, another assault on the concept of the ordinary guy with an ordinary life who becomes a television star. True, Howard loses the cumbersome device of the star’s ignorance that he is a star—or is even on TV—and with it all the metaphysical and analogical dimension of The Truman Show. There is no God figure here, no meditation on freedom or individualism. There’s just a dumb slob called Ed (Matthew McConaughey) who thinks he’d like to be a celebrity, improbably becomes one, then decides that on the whole he doesn’t like it. In the end he’s still a dumb slob.
This is an important fact because, for me anyway, it made Ed very hard to like. In short, he is a jerk. Not as much of a jerk as his older brother, Ray (Woody Harrelson), but still a jerk. In fact, he is to start out with pretty much the same kind of jerk that most celebrities are: that is, a narcissist with exhibitionist tendencies but no discernible talent, the sort of guy who imagines that everybody else is as goofy as he is and must be, therefore, amused by his goofiness. So far from being the ordinary guy picked out of the crowd, this man was born to be a celebrity and was just waiting for some sleazy TV producers to come along and recognize the fact, which duly happens.
The sleazy television producers are there to make him look good by looking really bad themselves. The creative genius behind the show, Cynthia Topping (Ellen DeGeneres), is so completely without a life of her own that she passes the time away by brushing her dog’s teeth, while her boss, Mr Whittaker (Rob Reiner), is way over-familiar as the studio executive with the massive belly and the even more massive ego. When Ed falls in love, soap opera style, with his brother’s girlfriend, Shari (Jenna Elfman), while his father (Dennis Hopper) who abandoned the family when Ed was 12 returns, we see at once what is going on: real life, you see, imitates art. Or at least it imitates TV soap opera. Isn’t that a scream? The huge nationwide audience that tunes in to see real-Ed watches his doings as if he were just a character on “Days of Our Lives” and they don’t know the difference. Maybe we begin to forget it ourselves.
But of course we don’t. Not for a single moment. Like the fictional watchers of Ed up there on the screen, we know exactly what is going to happen: boy will lose girl, boy’s head will be turned by celebrity, boy will see how phony his life has become and, finally, boy will get girl back again. Meanwhile, the less sleazy and pompous of the two main network people will become conscience-stricken and quit her job while the more s. and p. of the two will be publicly humiliated. Because it is so obviously a movie, with a movie’s plot and none but moviemakers’ idea of real people in it, we are not remotely tempted by the imposture that it is real life, on which the movie’s humor ultimately depends. Not that it is not potentially a good joke to look at real life as a sort of disease of the media. But viewers of Ed-TV are unlikely to be able forget that, in fact, it is the other way round.