NEW YORK — You can't always tell when a movie will start a trend, or at least clone a high-profile spinoff. When it arrived last year, "The Truman Show" seemed too innovative and offbeat to become a multiplex hit despite Jim Carrey's virtuoso shenanigans as the title character. But it fared well with audiences and earned Oscar nominations, even though it proved an also-ran in the final votes.
Now comes the oddly named "EDtv" to capitalize on the same basic premise: Our media-saturated society is so starved for fresh entertainment that the next logical step might be round-the-clock programming based on the actual life of an ordinary person.
"The Truman Show" turned this notion into a paranoid allegory by making its hero an unwitting celebrity who had no idea his every move was being watched by millions, and wants to flee the arrangement the minute he finds out about it. "EDtv" carries the idea in a different direction, making its main character a voluntary performer who's eager for fame and money.
Considered together, the two movies make an interesting pair. With its vision of mass-media manipulation as a high-tech trap for the individual spirit, "The Truman Show" sees the potential for dehumanization and even totalitarianism in the power we give modern communications. By contrast, "EDtv" is a democratic version of the tale, suggesting that the price of stardom might be little more than a willingness to sign away one's privacy on a producer's dotted line.
This is an intriguing twist on the "Truman Show" concept, and if "EDtv" were as clever and constructive as the picture that paved the way for it, we could have greeted it as this season's first high-quality hit. Unfortunately, its screenplay veers in highly questionable directions before reaching a mean-spirited climax that outweighs Ron Howard's workmanlike filmmaking and the contributions of a star-powered cast.
The story begins promisingly, as cable executives brainstorm for ideas to put their struggling True TV channel back on the ratings map. The mention of an all-day-all-night documentary draws snickers at first, but a daring producer (Ellen DeGeneres) talks her colleagues into experimenting with the format.
Searching for talent, they stumble on a hammy video-store clerk (Matthew McConaughey) who's convinced American viewers will love him at first glance. After initial uncertainty, the show zooms to ratings heaven, and Ed enjoys his new-found popularity. But then his friends and family start suffering unexpected consequences, which get worse when he has the poor judgment to fall in love with the pretty girlfriend (Jenna Elfman) of his good-natured brother (Woody Harrelson) right in front of the cameras.
The problems with "EDtv" lie less with this plot than with the movie's handling of its material. The constant presence of a TV crew is seen as a petty annoyance, not an escalating psychological torture, and it's hard to believe that even a lunkhead like Ed would make such ill-considered personal choices in full view of the people most affected by them, not to mention a nationwide audience of strangers. Worst of all is the resolution of the story, which involves a genuinely cruel trick played on an unsympathetic but vulnerable character (Rob Reiner).
Production information from Universal Pictures traces the concept of "EDtv" to a little-known French-Canadian film called "Louis 19: King of the Airwaves," and differentiates the new picture from US predecessors like the famous PBS documentary "An American Family" and MTV's "Real World" series. Nowhere in the publicity is there a mention of "The Truman Show," which is superior to "EDtv" in every way as entertainment, as social commentary, and as fable on the human condition in the modern world.
If you find yourself browsing a neighborhood video store like Ed's, pick up "The Truman Show," last year's variation on the media-saturation theme. It's the one we'll still remember a year from now.
*Rated PG-13; contains foul language, strong sexual innuendo, and much anatomical humor. David Sterritt's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org