directed by Ron Howard
(MCA/Universal Pictures, 1999)

A burst of TV images and a press conference by the CEO and the program director of a San Francisco-based TV network tell us all we need to know: NWBC is about to launch its most daring program yet, True TV.

True TV will consist of one person being filmed 16 hours a day -- going through his regular routine, from the moment he wakes up 'til he retires, or goes bonkers -- broadcast live and unedited.

The only question is who that one person will be. The title leaves little in doubt. It's Ed, of course.

Ed Pekurney (Matthew McConaughey) is a 31-year-old video store clerk whose idea of a future is finishing work so he can shoot pool with his buds in the local bar. He ends up auditioning for True TV only by accident: His obnoxious older brother, Ray (Woody Harrelson), drags him in front of the camera hoping to make himself look good.

That, it seems, is impossible. Ed gets the offer and goes with it. After all, only two things could go wrong: The show could flop, or it could be a hit.

Blessed with a funny idea and a great cast, director Ron Howard would seem to be on easy street with EdTV. But media examinations of media overkill are laced with land mines, and Howard steps on a few on his way to an otherwise satisfying and fitfully funny piece of social satire.

The most obvious trap is sentimentality, which creeps in most often and most noticeably in the guise of program director Cynthia Topping (Ellen DeGeneres). Topping devised the True TV show idea, went to great lengths to sell it and is perfectly willing to manipulate Ed to make it work. Then suddenly she has second thoughts. Why? It's never really clear.

A second is the media-roundup cliche, in which talk-show hosts and talking heads serve as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting sound-bite style on the action of the film: We know Ed's made it because he's become fodder for Jay Leno's monologue. Howard handles it all well, but the concept has become pat. It's time for a new and better cliche.

Fortunately for DeGeneres and everyone else concerned, EdTV is snatched from the jaws of sentimentality at every turn by a witty cast that knows how to deliver sharp lines.

Topping the list is Martin Landau as Ed's stepfather, Al, a man so close to death they could share tableware. Al's chief interest in Ed's burgeoning fame is getting his autograph so he won't have to wait an hour in line at the doctor's office: "Damn urologists think they rule the world," he says, handing Ed a pen and People magazine cover with Ed's picture on it.

Almost as good are Harrelson as Ray and Rob Reiner as the sleazy TV producer. (Is there any other kind?) But the most profound line of the movie is left to Ed's pool-shooting pal, John (Adam Goldberg): "You put anybody on television 16 hours a day, at some point they're going to wind up rolling off a table and squashing a cat."

Ultimately, EdTV is a message film. The message is on target, but not entirely new, and, in the course of 124 minutes, it gets squashed a few times. Luckily, like the cat, it survives.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

Buy EdTV from Amazon.com.