If Truman Had Known-And Had a Sex Life

Ron Howard’s EDtv , from a screenplay by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, based on the motion picture Louis XIX, Roi des ondes (1994), written by Emile Gaudreault and Sylvie Bouchard and directed by Michel Poulette, will inevitably be compared with last year’s Pirandellian mock-media offerings, The Truman Show and Pleasantville , and found wanting. The critics at least are sure to dismiss its more tolerant attitude toward television and its audience, as well as its concluding sermons on the individual’s right to privacy.

Mr. Howard and his scenarists have always been very comfortable with mainstream considerations on both the little screen and the big screen, and they are not about to bite the many hands that feed them. Yet, their consummate professionalism and expertise with the vagaries of popular taste has enabled them to provide a pleasantly vulgar entertainment that never goes over the edge into outright inanity.

The overhyped Matthew McConaughey–who never quite lived up to his magazine-cover superstar buildup–seems to have used his role as Ed Pekurny, the San Francisco video store clerk who allows himself to be followed by a TV camera crew 24 hours a day, as a comeback audition vehicle for his stalled career. Not for Ed Pekurny the holy fool clownishness of Jim Carrey’s Truman; Ed knows the score from the outset, and he is never taken in by the pious protestations of the media slickers. Jenna Elfman’s Shari, Ed’s heartthrob, is too much of a real person to put up with the media circus, and Ed eventually gives up fame and fortune for her true and private love. That’s having it both ways with a vengeance.

Fortunately, the predetermined proceedings are enlivened considerably by a knockout comedy performance by the much maligned Ellen DeGeneres as a television executive with heart, soul and wit; Woody Harrelson as the amusingly overbearing older brother of the comparatively modest hero; Rob Reiner as the juicily villainous head man; and Martin Landau, Sally Kirkland and Dennis Hopper as the publicly exposed architects of Ed’s luridly messed-up family life.

All in all, EDtv is an entertainment for Mr. and Mrs. Popcorn. Sociological sourpusses who fantasize about a universal yearning for privacy in this media-saturated world, are hereby warned that EDtv is an insidious plug for the universal yearning to be a media celebrity.

Last American Hero

Clint Eastwood’s True Crime , from a screenplay by Larry Gross, Paul Brickman and Stephen Schiff, based on the novel by Andrew Klavan, manages to generate considerable character-driven fun and charm until the plot-driven climax compels it to cut to the chase, about the outcome of which there is very little real suspense. With literally seconds to spare, can the hero save an innocent man from execution by lethal injection in movie-venerable San Quentin Prison? What do you think?

Hollywood has always been resolutely opposed to the execution of the innocent, which is hardly the most difficult political issue facing the opponents of capital punishment. Still, Mr. Eastwood and his scenarists strike a blow against this barbaric practice simply by demonstrating in great detail the several stages of the injection process, a supposedly merciful advance on the more traditional hangman’s noose, electric chair, gas chamber and guillotine.

The hero in True Crime is at first more an antihero in the person of Mr. Eastwood’s Steve Everett, an outrageously sexist recovering alcoholic who is an investigative journalist with a rambunctiousness that goes back to the riotous newsrooms of The Front Page and after. Everett has seemingly blown his big chance back East for a Pulitzer, and has been virtually exiled to the journalistic backwater of the Oakland Tribune . The 68-year-old Mr. Eastwood makes no effort to conceal his age and politically incorrect horniness as he hits upon comely 23-year-old Michelle (Mary McCormack), a reporter colleague. Their impromptu late-night rendezvous takes place in a nearly empty bar, but the randy repartee is merely pleasant foreplay for a crucial plot development.

Michelle has been covering the execution of convicted murderer Frank Beachum (Isaiah Washington) for a human interest sidebar, and when, after rejecting Everett’s advances, the drunken Michelle fatally crashes her car, the human interest story is assigned to Everett the next morning with less than a full day before the execution. We gradually learn that Everett has been cheating on his wife Barbara (Diane Venora), and habitually disappointing his little daughter Kate (Francesca Fisher-Eastwood) by indulging in a professionally dangerous affair with Patricia Findley (Laila Robins), the restless and indiscreet wife of Bob Findley (Denis Leary), Everett’s assignment editor at the Trib . When Everett learns that Findley has learned from Patricia about their affair, he feels Findley’s evil eye upon him, much to the amusement of Alan Mann (James Woods), the Trib ‘s sardonic editor in chief, one of Everett’s few remaining friends.

The scenes involving Mr. Eastwood, Mr. Woods and Mr. Leary are very sharply written with an exhilaratingly charismatic maleness. And a good thing, too, because the scenes in the prison with Beachum, his overwrought wife Bonnie (Lisa Gay Hamilton) and his tearful daughter Gail (Penny Bae Bridges) would be unbearably sticky, if the sob stuff were not intercut with Everett’s shamelessly irresponsible escapades. Two men: one too good to be true, and the other deeply flawed, but desperately seeking redemption through his professional gift for sniffing out a miscarriage of justice. The happy ending can thus be justified as the last exploit of an aging gunfighter, with Mr. Eastwood as the last of the gnarled giants from William S. Hart, through Harry Carey Jr., Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea and John Wayne. He loses a step here and there, but never their unyielding grace, gallantry and moral grandeur.

As an added dividend, the now too seldom seen Diane Venora transforms what could have been a thankless role as a betrayed wife into a haunting portrayal of womanly grief and anger.

My New Best Friend’s Wedding

Bronwen Hughes’ Forces of Nature , from a screenplay by Marc Lawrence, blows across the screen with the combined energy of such screwball comedy classics of the 30′s as Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) and Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938), with just a dash of 60′s anti-marriage-ceremony revisionism from Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967). Still, at times, Forces of Nature looks and sounds more like a special effects extravaganza than a romantic comedy.

Second-billed Ben Affleck plays Ben, a book-jacket copywriter who is about to be married to third-billed Maura Tierney’s Bridget, a child of the wildly Deep South of Savannah, Ga. But the whole world, North and South, East and West, is whimsical in Forces of Nature , not just Savannah. At a wild bachelor party provided by his best and raunchiest friend Alan (Steve Zahn), Ben has to tend to his grandfather’s collapse from a heart attack brought on by the attentions of a hired stripper. At his grandfather’s hospital bedside, Ben is told that his grandfather’s lustful yearnings were never satisfied by Ben’s unattractive grandmother. This is just the beginning of the anti-marriage advice Ben is to receive for the duration of the movie from friends, relatives and the most casual acquaintances.

Top-billed Sandra Bullock’s Sarah sits next to Ben on his flight from New York to Savannah, and they are literally thrown together when the plane crashes on the runway. Sarah, it turns out, is the force of nature. This, Ben discovers as the two encounter one misadventure after another once they have decided to take ground transportation together from New York to Savannah. In the 30′s, Sarah would have been an heiress or something. Not so here. Sarah has some money, but not much, and has had some messy entanglements in her life. The inevitable affinity we expect to grow between Ben and Sarah is interrupted periodically by some new revelation of Sarah’s flightiness and instability.

Meanwhile, back in Savannah where everyone is waiting for Ben to arrive, Bridget begins having mini-adventures of her own with a former suitor. But one opportunity after another is missed to demonize her so that Ben and Sarah can have a clear path to the altar. Gradually, we begin to suspect that we are in neither the 30′s nor the 60′s, but in the 90′s of My Best Friend’s Wedding and Ally McBeal when the people we love are not necessarily the people we marry. Just as the Cameron Diaz character is never degraded in Wedding , neither is Bridget degraded in Forces of Nature .

Unfortunately, Ms. Tierney is nowhere near as dazzling as Ms. Diaz, and Ms. Bullock does not live up to her top billing as a gallantly moving loser as Julia Roberts did in Wedding . It isn’t entirely the fault of the actresses in Forces of Nature that they get swept away in a hurricane of excessive production values. Yet Ms. Bullock has been ill-served by a part that causes her to strain too hard to be funny and sexy at all costs. By contrast, Mr. Affleck’s quietly hunky performance seems intuitively modulated to minimize the damage from the frequently failed slapstick. When he finally lets go with a zestful striptease in a gay bar so that he and Sarah can earn enough travel money to keep going, he salvages an improbable contrivance by having something left to give to the audience.

Ms. Bullock, on the other hand, is overdrawn very early in the craziness bank and, consequently, her reality checks start bouncing. Still, the very contemporaneity of the treatment makes Forces of Nature worth seeing in an age of rabidly retrogressive cinema.