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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'EdTV' a Truer Look at 'Truman' World

In his good-humored, deceptively easygoing satire "EdTV," Ron Howard holds up a fun house mirror to a world ruled by voyeurism and specious fame.

It's a world where a simple "he's cute!" can lead to overnight stardom, and where a book can be written by someone who has never read one. It's a world where tabloids and television truly snoop to conquer, and where the distinction between nobody's business and everybody's business is unclear. And it's all too well-trodden territory. Howard can't really say much about it that's new.

But what he can do, and does here so amusingly and fondly, is bring the effects of such cultural topsy-turviness right home, not just to this film's hilariously embattled characters but to the viewer as well. In a film that begins almost nonchalantly, Howard soon lures his audience into a morass of peeping-Tom opportunism and advertising hustle that's an awful lot like what you can see on the evening news.

And because it would be easy to savage this state of affairs, "EdTV" does something more interesting: It makes palpable the way viewers are compromised by what they see. Whether within the film or merely while watching it, audiences are turned into becoming part of the process that transforms a good-looking nobody, like Ed Pekurny (Matthew McConaughey), into our latest disposable toy. Having been sliced and diced by this same process in his own life, McConaughey understandably plays Ed with a vengeance, and with a slyly raffish style.

A funny ensemble cast clearly savors the absurdity of what unfolds here in an affectionate, rambling comedy whose ideas about deranged media needn't really brook comparison with "The Truman Show." "EdTV" doesn't aspire to such a cool, conceptual overview. With down-to-earth comic instincts, it simply invests its story with a loud ring of truth.

In a dependably jokey screenplay by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, "EdTV" casts Ellen DeGeneres as a San Francisco television executive in dire need of a brainstorm, and puts Rob Reiner in the entertainingly villainous role of her boss, who fancies himself a television taste maker. Together, they agree to try putting an ordinary Joe on 24-hour television.

The mere circumstances of Ed's first on-camera wakeup are enough to show off the film's eye for embarrassing detail. As Ed shows off his hubcap collection, champions his favorite movie star, Burt Reynolds, and works on personal hygiene ("you know, most people like to hurry a toenail-clippin' session,") the potential for gaffes is all too clear. But, of course, this is exactly what endears the show to viewers, who find themselves hooked on Ed for reasons they can't explain. Howard intersperses Ed's own story with glimpses of the chefs and couples and college girls who are soon transfixed. Their impulse is explained best by the gay man who tells his lover: "I don't know, it's just ... just let me watch!"

In a perfect casting coup, the film presents McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, who do share a resemblance, as brothers who don't easily adjust to Ed's growing fame. Harrelson is a particular treat as Ray, the show off Pekurny, who, like Ed, is easily lured into airing private matters before the camera. Ray's girlfriend, Shari (Jenna Elfman), provides the often hilarious romantic subtext.

With very funny turns from Martin Landau as the brothers' wisecracking stepfather, Sally Kirkland as their unexpectedly vixenish mother and especially Elizabeth Hurley as the model with whom fans desperately want Ed to have sex, the film stays conventional, yet fresh, even when it has to scramble for a sunny ending.

- Janet Maslin

The New York Times