While channel-surfing a few days back, I encountered the surreal sight of an E! Entertainment News Special devoted to the ongoing national crisis that is the disintegration of Jon and Kate Gosselin’s marriage. The mouth-breathing sentient-mannequin-type hosting the special adopted a stern, concerned look she hoped would be mistaken for journalistic gravitas as she reported on the latest breaking news on the tortured couple behind Jon & Kate Plus 8. A rough patch in the marriage of a pair of reality stars on a second-rate basic-cable channel was being treated as the entertainment-news equivalent of the Cuban Missile Crisis, only more important, since children were involved. Oh, won’t someone think of the children!
Granted, news specials on E! Entertainment Television don’t generally qualify as news, or special, or entertainment, or even television, but we seem to have reached a new nadir in our sordid fascination with the grotesque creatures on reality TV. Once upon a time, reality television was a disreputable sideshow. Today, it’s the main attraction.
You would have to live in a cave, or be my older sister Anna, to not know way too fucking much about the personal lives and romantic misadventures of Jon and Kate Gosselin and Octomom. The great pop-culture history-watchers of the future shall recall the summer of 2009 as a time when the public inexplicably developed an insatiable hunger for information about women famed only for letting eight doomed babies slip out of their vaginas in a short amount of time.
I have never watched an episode of Jon & Kate Plus 8. My only exposure to it comes via clips on The Soup. I figure that if I want to experience a sour-faced scold verbally emasculating a passive, weak-willed schmuck over and over again, I need only rifle through my very own treasure trove of unpleasant memories. Yet I feel like I know more about the unhappy couple than I do about my own family.
I’ve been privy to just about every stage of their dissipating bond. I learned all about Jon’s wild night on the town with a random skank while perusing a glossy tabloid. I cringed when I discovered just how bad things had become. I gazed in horror at a picture of Kate smacking her kid.
While looking up today’s Case File in My Year Of Flops, I visited IMDB.com and encountered the following breaking news: “It’s Over: Jon & Kate File for Divorce.” On Twitter, the top trending topics of the moment are “Iran Election,” “Which NKOTB Would Marry You?” (my guess? Zeppo, the forgotten Wahlberg) and “Jon & Kate.”
Until Johnny Law shut him down, the fucking governor of my state was itching to appear on a reality show opposite Spencer Pratt and Stephen Baldwin. (His wife ended up appearing instead.) Our inexorable march into a grim reality-television dystopia should lend an air of prescience and relevance to 1999’s EDtv. Along with The Truman Show—Gallant to its Goofus—EDtv should now look like a bold pop-culture Cassandra fearlessly predicting a world where the oppressive heat of the media spotlight transforms normal people into household names, and privacy is a distant memory.
Like The Truman Show, EDtv fantasizes about a 24-hour reality show where the mundane events of an average Joe are broadcast live to an inexplicably riveted nation. Though the live reality show remains a beautiful, horrible dream/nightmare, we’ve reached a saturation point in our culture where the Octomoms and Jon & Kates are documented and doggedly pursued 24 hours a day by a breathless Internet and content-starved cable-news cycle.
In EDtv, Ellen DeGeneres plays a young television professional with a dream: to broadcast the mundane details of an average man’s life ’round the clock for a radical new cable channel. Why on Earth would anyone want to watch some sad-sack eat dinner or take a nap when they could be enjoying TV’s glorious late-’90s renaissance of scripted entertainment? Perhaps because the gentleman in question is Matthew McConaughey.
McConaughey’s own mythology echoes his characters. He was a weed-smoking, brew-drinking good ol’ boy from the heart of Texas, plucked from relative obscurity and a handful of scene-stealing supporting turns. Before he’d starred in his first film, the press and the Hollywood elite had anointed him as the next Paul Newman, solely on the basis of his looks and charm.
Already, the film is operating at cross purposes. Its main character can be an aw-shucks everyman, or he can look like Matthew McConaughey. The two are mutually exclusive. Certain actors are too good-looking to play normal people. Nobody is ever going to believe that someone who looks like Rose McGowan would work at Wal-Mart. The same is true of McConaughey.
EDtv does its damnedest to camouflage McConaughey’s dreaminess by duding him out in shapeless jeans and flannel shirts, giving him unflattering facial hair, and sadistically keeping him clothed for 99 percent of its running time. Put McConaughey in a lumberjack shirt, and he’s like a freshly-shorn Samson: powerless. Impotent. A shell of a man. Devoid of mojo.
EDtv’s production values are deliberately modest and rinky-dink, in keeping with its working-class milieu. It has no big movie stars, no special effects, no expensive car chases or fiery explosions. So why did it cost $80 million to make? Damned if I know. You’d have to go back to Case File Town & Country to find a studio comedy that got so little bang out of so many bucks.
McConaughey gets off to a rough start as a TV star. He scratches his morning erection, checks out his ass in a video monitor, and generally behaves like a naïve hayseed. At first, it appears that no one will watch an unknown guy do not much of anything at all, but oh, how the plot thickens! At a bar one wasted evening, McConaughey’s jerk-off brother (Woody Harrelson) drunkenly humiliates his long-suffering girlfriend (Jenna Elfman) and his family by outing his sister as a hopeless alcoholic and his brother-in-law as a talentless, tuneless hack of a lounge singer.
EDtv is fatally, perversely bland. Its characters are walking slabs of white bread: they need to be developed extensively just to qualify as one-dimensional. Yet it lurches into shrill familial psychodrama whenever the plot requires it. In this case, we need to see Harrelson being the world’s hugest asshole to justify McConaughey hooking up with Elfman. The inspiration and satire-free screenplay by professional hacks Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz (rewriting the original French film EDtv remade) goes even further by having Harrelson cheat on Elfman when not humiliating his loved ones or making an ass of himself on national television.
This romantic love triangle has America riveted. Of course, if reality television has taught us anything, it’s that reality is incredibly boring, and it needs to be spiced up with celebrities, challenges, binge-drinking, nervous breakdowns, and constant casual sex among the mentally ill just to become watchable. The only way EDtv’s romantic skirmish could hold the attention of a fickle public would be if the involved parties were a disgraced boy-band member, a Tila Tequila-like nymphomaniac with exhibitionist tendencies, and a naked Matthew McConaughey.
Nevertheless, in the film’s world, a broad cross-section of lazily stereotyped Americans (a gay couple, frat boys, sorority sisters, working-class black folks) can’t get enough of him. EDtv’s characters barely function as broad abstractions—The Everyman, The Asshole Brother, The Girl That Gets Between Them, The Tawdry Tinsel-Town Temptress, the Sleazy Television Executive, the Opportunistic Dad.
They’re paper-thin, a veritable stable of Blandy McBlandersons, so whenever the film runs out of energy and momentum—which happens every 10 minutes—it gooses up the plot with conflict or a groaningly arbitrary plot twist. So McConaughey’s relationship with Elfman is tested by the predatory attentions of Elizabeth Hurley, a sexy Singer-Actress-Model-Whatever type intent on using McConaughey as a stepping stone to glory. Elfman leaves McConaughey and moves to another city. McConaughey’s long-lost father (Dennis Hopper) pops up out of nowhere and dies of a narratively convenient heart attack not long after dark family secrets are revealed. Harrelson writes a tell-all book about his brother.
Reality television is, of course, a patently artificial construct, a monetized, commercialized distortion of reality accomplished through skillful editing, manipulative music cues, and shameless manipulation of chronology. A 24-hour live reality show would be closer to conceptual art or the cinematic experiments of Andy Warhol than Survivor, yet EDtv asks us to believe that a massive mainstream audience would happily watch 23 hours of Matthew McConaughey walking around, sleeping, and eating meals on the off chance that they might stumble across footage of him hiding the afikoman inside Elizabeth Hurley. (Actually, that’s the one aspect of the film I found convincing.)
McConaughey finally turns the tables on his television tormentors by offering to pay $10,000 for embarrassing secrets about the executives he’s working for. In the not-so-grand tradition of Frank Capra-corn, the common man, blessed with common sense, decency, and guile, though not sophistication, triumphs over the fat cats and mucky-mucks with their fancy degrees and gaudy bank accounts.
In a dispiriting climax, McConaughey escapes his television hell by revealing that evil television executive Rob Reiner received a penile implant. EDtv aspires to be Meet John Doe—one of my favorite movies—and closes with a giant dick joke. That would be bad enough. The icing on the shit cake is that it isn’t even a good dick joke. I love dick jokes. Dick jokes pay my rent and feed my cats. EDtv is a fucking disgrace to dick jokes.
Given the satirical potential of its premise, it’s almost impressive how toothless and inane EDtv manages to be. I’ve always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Ron Howard. He seems like a very sweet, very sincere guy, and he’s done a lot of great work (The Andy Griffith Show, Happy Days, Splash, Frost/Nixon, Arrested Development) but I kind of hate him as a director. Howard deserves the lion’s share of the blame for EDtv. It’s leadenly paced, wildly unimaginative, clumsy, laugh-free, whiter than most Klan rallies, and at least 30 minutes too long. Just because Howard, his screenwriters, and much of the cast (DeGeneres, Harrelson, Elfman, Reiner, the army of talking heads appearing as themselves) all come from the world of television doesn’t mean the film needs to feel like a goddamned sitcom pilot.
I have a similar love-hate relationship with McConaughey. I like him as an actor, but generally hate his films. He’s never the worst part of his vehicles: He’s usually the saving grace of his shitty, shitty movies. At the risk of damning with faint praise, McConaughey, with the exception of Martin Landau’s droll performance as his stepfather, is the best thing about EDtv. Throughout the film, he sports a shit-eating grin that says “You’re okay, I’m fucking super, man, thanks for asking.” But he can’t do anything with the crumbs he’s given here.
In his review of Cinderella Man, longtime Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum described Ron Howard as an “exemplar of noble mediocrity.” Scratch the “noble” part, and you have an apt description of Howard’s sub-yeoman work here.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure