People will probably compare "EDtv" to "The Truman Show," but they're completely different movies going in completely different directions. Its striking imagery aside, "Truman" had the chilly, sanctimonious feel common to works of art that are supposed to be good for you. I think it was that almost Victorian sensibility, that aura of joyless pedantry, that made the ordinarily irrepressible Jim Carrey seem so ill at ease. "EDtv," despite being adapted from a 1994 French film by Michel Poulette, is a fast and funny ensemble comedy in the brainless, painless American tradition, a fable about an ordinary guy who discovers that fame and fortune aren't all they're cracked up to be and that he's better off being himself. It could almost have been made in the '40s: Bleach out the colors, backdate the wardrobes, insert Gary Cooper and Rosalind Russell and you've got one of Frank Capra's lesser films.
Amid a veritable forest of enjoyable performances, Ellen DeGeneres virtually steals the show as Cynthia Topping, the head of a struggling "reality-based" cable network called True TV. Cynthia's brainstorm is to pick an average galoot and put his life on TV full-time as the ultimate spectacle for voyeurs. Her network trails the gardening channel in the ratings and has nothing to lose: "People would rather watch soil," she says, than what they're showing now. When Ed Pekurny (Matthew McConaughey), the hapless San Francisco video-store clerk she selects as her guinea pig, briefly becomes a nationwide phenomenon, we watch Cynthia mentally downshift through a series of metaphors, all delivered in the same tone of uninflected enthusiasm: "He's a Beatle," she tells her boss (Rob Reiner, in another of his infotainment-slimeball roles). "Well, he's a Spice Girl. Maybe a Bee. He's Menudo."
As always, DeGeneres can be funny just standing there giving you her blank, relentlessly upbeat expression, but beneath Cynthia's wholesome exterior beats the devious heart of a born huckster. Whether she's enjoying a frozen margarita and a cigarette while seated on the rowing machine, or jumping up and down on her bed screaming, "I am the golden goddess of television!" (after engineering a romantic entanglement in Ed's TV life), Cynthia is a blissfully American creation of cheerfulness and cupidity. DeGeneres' hidden strength as a performer is that we instinctively believe that someone whose company we enjoy so much must have a conscience, no matter how deeply buried, and this isn't the kind of movie to disappoint such expectations. "EDtv" even casts a glance in the direction of DeGeneres' real-world celebrity. When Cynthia asks Ed, in one of their confidential late-night phone calls, "Can I give you some advice about women?" the audience at the screening I attended tittered knowingly. But as far as we can tell, Cynthia is married to her work, as chaste as a television nun.
We first meet Ed in a bar, where he's wearing a beer in a Styrofoam holder around his neck and displaying no interest in the True TV audition going on there. Ed's obnoxious brother Ray (Woody Harrelson), however, is really hot for the job. Ray's the kind of guy who still wears those poofy early-'90s gym pants with muscle shirts and does shooters of any form of alcohol. (There's a cursory explanation of how these two sub-frat-boy East Texas roughnecks wound up in San Francisco, but the film has no clue about how they afford North Beach apartments.) Ray is engaged to Shari (Jenna Elfman), a UPS driver and multiple romantic loser who describes herself as the "love coroner." From the moment of Shari's first conversation with sweet, deeply unambitious Ed -- who models himself after the happy-go-lucky Burt Reynolds of "Smokey and the Bandit" -- it's clear that Cynthia has stumbled onto that essential ingredient of television melodrama, the love triangle.
With her cat's eyes, her repertoire of sidelong glances and her knowing smile, Elfman constantly skirts the boundary between irresistible and insufferable -- I think she's adorable, but can understand that others find her cute-as-a-doggone-button act nauseating. Perhaps emboldened by the cameras that now follow him everywhere (except to the bathroom), Ed woos Shari away from Ray. Ratings go through the roof and Cynthia's evil boss takes all the credit, even as George Plimpton appears on a talk show to decry EDtv as "a joyous celebration of boobery." But the public rapidly turns on Shari -- after seeing herself dissed by RuPaul and reading a USA Today poll in which 71 percent of respondents say she's not good enough for Ed, Shari begins to wonder whether her love life is ready for prime time.
Shari convinces UPS to transfer her to another city to escape the limelight, and can only watch the increasingly popular Ed on TV as he draws ever closer to a live hookup with Elizabeth Hurley, reprising her now-patented vacuous babe role as the Ed-playmate favored by the audience. ("I'm a model and sort of an actress," she murmurs at him by way of introduction.) As they tussle on a tabletop and the technicians in the video truck howl, "We are go for sex!" an ad for Trojans scrolls across the bottom of the screen. As a media satire, "EDtv" is genial and almost plausible, though it's hardly original at this late date to suggest that the public hunger for sex and sensation can be destructive, or that those who feed it indiscriminately may reap the whirlwind. Director Ron Howard has a tendency to bloat his movies with didactic, sentimental lessons -- "Apollo 13" was something of an exception, maybe because its patriotism and the heroic nature of its story were not in question -- and after his Hurley episode misfires in slapstick fashion, Ed stumbles into a set of hackneyed revelations about the soullessness of celebrity and the importance of family.
But these are modest drawbacks, reflex gestures in the general direction of morality that are easily ignored amid the cheerful, dopey froth of "EDtv." Most viewers will be satisfied to root for the winning central couple, delight in DeGeneres' funniest and most complex film role to date and appreciate brief appearances by Sally Kirkland, Martin Landau and Dennis Hopper as oddball members of Ed and Ray's white-trash family. You might not remember this thoroughly disposable movie a month from now. But that's probably better than leaving the theater feeling like you've just been scolded by some smartass grad student for watching too much TV.