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Thematically, EDtv would have been bedraggled even if it hadn’t arrived almost a year after The Truman Show. All sensible people deplore American television’s growing emphasis on voyeuristic sleaze, but that doesn’t seem to have affected Jerry Springer’s ratings, and another movie about the venality of the medium isn’t going to shift the balance. So it comes as a pleasant, if modest, surprise to discover that this critique of the medium is brisk and funny, at least until the inevitable sanctimony starts to smother the laughs. Of course, a truly savage satire would have been ungracious, since many of EDtv’s stars owe their careers to television, and its director is still best known to millions of Americans as “Opie.”

Adapted by director Ron Howard and his longtime collaborators, screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, from a 1994 film by French-Canadian writer-director Michel Poulette, EDtv returns to the light and lively style of such early Howard flicks as Night Shift, Splash, and Gung Ho. The jokes aren’t profound but they are rapid-fire, and in Matthew McConaughey, who plays Ed, the director has found an easygoing equivalent of Michael Keaton and Tom Hanks, who starred in the earlier Howard big-screen sitcoms before they (and the director) turned to loftier topics.

The movie follows a video crew that’s following Ed, a 31-year-old video-store clerk who’s been selected by the foundering True TV cable channel to be its only attraction. Programmer Cynthia (Ellen DeGeneres) sells her boss, Whitaker (Rob Reiner), on Ed because beneath his stubble he’s cute and charming. It turns out, however, that his foremost telegenic attribute is his family, which includes randy, hustling older brother Ray (Woody Harrelson) and a mother, Jeanette (Sally Kirkland), who has never told the truth about how she split with the boys’ father, Hank (Dennis Hopper), and took second husband, Al (Martin Landau). Ed’s a well-meaning guy, but his downscale relations provide a festival of mortifications. (Ed and his kin are depicted as both economically and geographically undesirable, but the filmmakers have partially denatured the characters’ Texas twang by moving them all to San Francisco.)

That Ed’s hours at the video store might be boring is never acknowledged, and there’s no discussion of what True TV broadcasts while its star is asleep (perhaps Warhol-like extended shots of the Pepsi machines that feature so prominently). Like such genuine “reality” shows as MTV’s Real World, EDtv offers only the highlights of Ed’s life, which include his inadvertently stealing Ray’s girlfriend, Shari (Jenna Elfman), who we can tell is a good person because she has a nonglamour job (UPS delivery person) and hates having her new romance televised. Ultimately, Shari flees the limelight, and Cynthia introduces a more glamorous love interest, slinky model and nonactress Jill (played by slinky model and nonactress Elizabeth Hurley).

It’s in the Shari-vs.-Jill matchup that EDtv blows its cover. Like most movies about inadvertent celebrities, this one regularly cuts from its principals to the reactions of people watching them: young women in a dorm, a gay couple, and such expert commentators as Harry Shearer, Michael Moore, George Plimpton, Arianna Huffington, and Bill Maher. “Readers pick Jill over Shari,” announces one newspaper headline, and we filmgoers are supposed to feel proud of our superior perceptiveness; we see that Shari is sincere and good while Jill is manipulative and bad, which those shallow True TV watchers can’t discern. But this is a transparently phony distinction, especially in an age when most people watch their movies on TV anyway. There’s no possibility that, when EDtv is released on video later this year, most of its small-screen viewers won’t recognize that they’re supposed to prefer Shari to Jill.

One thing that distinguishes sitcom comedy from trenchant satire is that most sitcom characters have to be likable; after all, the networks want you to watch them week after week. EDtv reveals its sitcom soul when it has to extricate Ed from his increasingly irksome celebrityhood: Howard and his crew exonerate as many of the characters as possible as they turn the tables on True TV’s executives. Twenty years ago, Albert Brooks took EDtv’s theme to far more corrosive extremes with his first film, Real Life, which was inspired by PBS’s pioneering real-life series An American Family. TV may have become more wicked since then, but Hollywood’s mockery of its symbiotic rival has only gotten blander.

The new big-screen adventure of Nickelodeon/ABC ‘toon Doug Funnie may be Doug’s 1st Movie, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t seen it all before. Indeed, for viewers over the age of 10, identifying the animated film’s familiar superhero-, teen-, monster-, and conspiracy-movie themes is the principal diversion.

A tale of small-town 12-year-old Doug and his circle of friends and foes, Doug’s 1st Movie was directed by Maurice Joyce and written by Ken Scarborough from characters created by co-producer Jim Jinkins, a guy who doesn’t even know how to spell his own surname. While Doug is roughly the color that Crayola in less inclusive times labeled “flesh,” other residents of Bluffington are orange, blue, and green (but not brown). Despite the fanciful range of skin tones and an unusual preponderance of art-deco architecture, Bluffington is not a surprising place. Both its civic virtues and its hidden vices are as commonplace as the golden arches.

Doug and his pal Skeeter continue their search for the monster that allegedly lives in Lucky Duck Lake, but Doug is somewhat distracted by his desire to take his longtime crush, Patti Mayonnaise, to the upcoming Valentine’s Day dance. His ordinary life occasionally yields to Walter Mitty-like fantasies of competence and heroism, in which he triumphs over the local bullies and the slick, deceitful Guy, Doug’s rival for Patti’s affection.

Like many ’50s-vintage monsters, the creature from the lake is a byproduct of environmental degradation; the reptilian creature was mutated by the pollutants dumped in the water by Mr. Bluff, the town’s ruthless millionaire namesake. Once Doug and Skeeter meet the monster, however, they realize he’s a well-meaning but misunderstood sort, in the tradition of the radiation-created post-Godzilla superheroes invented by Marvel Comics in the early ’60s (Spider-Man and the Hulk, for example). The creature behaves more like a dog than a mutant lizard and soon makes friends with Doug’s initially suspicious pooch, Porkchop. After the ravenous monster tries to eat a copy of Moby Dick, Doug and Skeeter name him Herman Melville—a curious name for a monster, but one that clearly indicates he’s no threat. In fact, Herman is an example of what ecotourism skeptics call “charismatic megafauna.”

In their attempt to save Herman, Doug and Skeeter enlist the local mayor, who suggests they call a press conference. It’s unusual to find an honest politician in a movie that expresses the conspiracy-theory view of American life, but at least the media are true to form: They all work for Bluffco, whose logo is a giant screw. Even the school paper (edited by the nefarious Guy) is part of the conspiracy to defame and destroy Herman and whitewash Bluff’s environmental crimes. The climactic showdown takes place at the Valentine’s Day dance, to which Bluff sends paramilitary troops to kill Herman in front of the kids. Doug’s adventures are supposed to be wholesome and enriching, but a middle school dance overseen by armored men with automatic weapons is not a reassuring image. As much All the President’s Men as Free Willy, Doug’s 1st Movie shows how thoroughly today’s ‘toons have assimilated Hollywood’s early-’70s paranoia.CP