One of the pleasures of working in theater or film is hanging out with actors and sundry showbiz exhibitionists. True, they tend to have the emotional autonomy of 8-year-olds, but they’re less of a labor to “read” than ordinary mortals: It’s their business–you might say their existential orientation–to communicate their thoughts and feelings in an engaging fashion every millisecond. I mention this because the first thing that struck me about the much-hyped satirical comedy EdTV, which purports to show the effect of TV cameras brought into the homes of real people, is that almost no one on-screen seems ever to have met a real (i.e., nonshowbiz) person, let alone to be able to embody one. The director, Ron Howard, and his screenwriters and actors have spent much of their lives in the business, and I’d trust them to depict the anxieties of TV executives and the madness of network board meetings. I’d trust them to skewer the vanity of models and actors and directors. What I don’t trust is their ability to convey what it’s like simply to have a meal with a loved one or to walk across a street or to wake up from a sound sleep without the self-consciousness that comes from a constant proximity to media. When they project their particular self-consciousness onto society as a whole, the upshot is a sour, self-congratulatory muddle.
EdTV is based on a 1994 French Canadian film that no one I know has seen called Louis XIX: King of the Airwaves. (The mock imperial title alone suggests more wit than the whole of its Hollywood counterpart.) EdTV takes off from the increasingly less outlandish idea that a cable network might, in the face of declining ratings, decide to have its cameras traipse around after an “ordinary” person 24 hours a day–a scenario somewhat different from last year’s The Truman Show, in which the cameras were hidden, the universe manufactured, and the TV protagonist unwitting. There is already something like EdTV–albeit with one camera–on the Internet, and the number of auditioners for MTV’s Real World and for a spot on various “trash” talk shows suggests that the United States has no shortage of exhibitionists who’d love to be “validated” by TV cameras. (On these terms, Monica Lewinsky is the most valid human being on the planet.) Under the leadership of a gung-ho producer, Cynthia Topping (Ellen DeGeneres), the network holds auditions in public places around the country and comes up with Ed Pekurny (Matthew McConaughey), a 31-year-old San Francisco video store clerk who is cute and unthreatening and unformed. (“I have a dream, I just don’t know what it is yet.”)
The problem with EdTV is that Ed’s life looks and sounds like a tedious sitcom before the TV cameras ever show up. McConaughey’s manner is TV-talk-show bashful. (Is this supposed to be the point? That he’s deformed by television before he’s ever on television? I don’t think so.) Ed’s rambunctious brother Ray is played by Woody Harrelson, a Cheers veteran, and his mother by Sally Kirkland, who could never be anything but an actress. His wheelchair-bound stepdad is Martin Landau, who makes sitcom-style, raunchy old guy wisecracks. His brother’s squeeze–and, later, his own–is Jenna Elfman, of television’s Dharma and Greg. At one point, the door swings open and there stands Dennis Hopper. “What an inspired touch!” I thought. “A lazy, ham actor shows up to explain to poor Ed the secrets of Lee Strasberg’s “Method”–how to be “private in public”–just like on Bravo’s Inside the Actors Studio!” It turned out that this wasn’t Dennis Hopper, however, but Dennis Hopper in the role of Ed’s long-lost father–and few things can dispel the illusion of watching real people than a hack actor feigning naturalness via mannerisms recycled from James Dean and Montgomery Clift.
Before the movie even gets going (it doesn’t seem to begin for half an hour), it’s clear that Howard and his frequent collaborators Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel are too deep inside the mentality that they’re trying to satirize to come up with anything fresh. EdTV has none of the edge of such “mockumentaries” as Albert Brooks’ Real Life (1980) or This Is Spinal Tap (1984) or even HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show, all of which exploit in hilarious fashion the tension between just being and performing for a camera. Where the filmmakers are most comfortable is back in the studio, so they throw in Jay Leno, RuPaul, and a panel of repugnant pundits–Harry Shearer, Michael Moore, George Plimpton, and Arianna Huffington–to discuss the “Ed phenomenon.” Howard and his writers are so in love with their own hip self-consciousness that it’s a wonder they don’t feature film critics discussing their movie.
As it turns out, EdTV isn’t really about the impact of television on ordinary people. It’s about the problems of being famous–like how you can never get any privacy. In common with The Truman Show, the film eventually evolves into a melodramatic revolt against a repressive corporate patriarch, here an executive (Rob Reiner) who doesn’t want to turn off the cameras and leave Ed alone when Ed’s life is in a shambles but his ratings are high. (The Truman Show took a higher, more metaphorical route; in EdTV, liberation comes down to exposing the fact that Dad has a penile implant.) Reiner has the fatted, self-centered TV exec’s demeanor down pat, but the movie degrades him while holding the same attitude toward human beings that he has. As Ed’s unconvincing life runs its increasingly public course, Howard cuts to the folks at home–a Black Couple, a Gay Couple, an Old Couple, a bunch of Single Guys–who wince at him cutting his toenails or cheer on his conquests. When USA Today polls show that The People overwhelmingly prefer a flagrantly insincere model (Elizabeth Hurley) to the sweet and awkward UPS girl (Elfman) with whom Ed has found love, you have to ask: Are The People supposed to be shallow boobs? Or is this just how the world looks from certain Beverly Hills ZIP codes?
A more true-to-life–alas–version of EdTV is 20 Dates, a microbudget documentary directed by and starring Myles Berkowitz. At the beginning of the film, now in wide release, Berkowitz–thirtyish and divorced and unable to get his directing career off the ground–explains that he has received a sum of money from a private investor (heard cursing the director via a hidden tape recorder) to go on 20 dates with 20 attractive women and thereby capture something unglimpsed in commercial movies about the single life, the nature of love, etc., etc., ad nauseam. All that is captured, of course, is Berkowitz’s ambition to put himself in your face: He comes out of 20 Dates with a trophy fiancee and a feature film in major release, but absolutely no insight into dating, love, or human chemistry. The audience, meanwhile, ends up cringing and squirming on behalf of his dates, some of whom are appalled to the point of violence and litigation by the revelation of a hidden camera. (Only two of the 20 had the camera concealed from them–both sued.) The masochistic fascination of 20 Dates is something that the makers of EdTV can only dream about, but I wouldn’t exactly call it entertainment; I found myself wanting to apologize on behalf of obnoxious heterosexual Jewish men the world over. I also wondered: What about those women, some of them pretty, bright, and articulate, who admirably recoiled from this clown when they discovered they were fodder for his Hollywood ambitions? When they saw Berkowitz on the big screen with a 20th Century Fox logo behind him, did they think, “Wow, I really missed the boat on this one. I should never have let him get away”?
The best reason for seeing Forces of Nature–a sporadically funny but uneasily revisionist screwball comedy in which straight-arrow Ben Affleck is tempted from his imminent nuptials by free spirit Sandra Bullock and assorted natural disasters–is a scene in which the heartsick jock ex-boyfriend (David Strickland) of Affleck’s fiancee (Maura Tierney) sings an a cappella version of Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds (Take a Look At Me Now)” into her ear in the middle of a party. The gesture is as embarrassing for the character as anything in EdTV or 20 Dates, but Strickland sings with such quavering soulfulness that the bit lifts up and floats out of the movie like a weird but beautiful balloon. I was going to mention this scene anyway, as the picture’s highlight; I dwell on it because word comes that the 28-year-old Strickland, a regular on the sitcom Suddenly Susan, has been found dead in Las Vegas, apparently having hanged himself. It’s no consolation, but he has left behind an exquisite moment in film.