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.

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