This movie is full of surprises, starting with the fact that it's one of the
most dramatically successful film biographies in memory. A remarkable
achievement in that its subject is the eminently forgettable 60's to 70's
game show host, Chuck Barris. Add to that that the screenplay is another
howling avant garde piece by Charlie Kaufman ("Adaptation"); that it's a
first time directing gig for actor George Clooney; and that it inspired the
most creative, cleverly designed and executed cinematography in 2002. This
goes to the must-see list.
None of that is by accident, mind. It demonstrates that George Clooney as a
sheer filmmaker, is showing significant gifts beyond the talent already
established. It also shows the possibilities for film biography when it's
based on an autobiography that might be bogus. Chuck Barris' book of the
same title, purporting to be the real story of his clandestine and public
life, contains material that might well have been fabricated for it's
cinematic coloration. Was he really a hit man? Apparently, he claims he was
but, beyond that, he ain't talkin'.
Barris (Sam Rockwell) was a creator of TV shows that were the "reality" shows
of the 60's and 70's. His "The Dating Game", "The Newlywed Game" and "The
Gong Show" were low-budget contributions to the popular taste that the
networks didn't realize would work until someone had the courage to fund the
first and watch it climb to the heights in the ratings. We see Barris
becoming a household name and an icon of low-brow taste and imagination. He
had a handle on pop appeal like few before him. "The show is based on the
idea that every American would sell out their spouse for a kitchen appliance
or a lawnmower you can ride", he would say. Who knows what has been spawned
out of what he demonstrated would work on the small screen? "Jerry
Springer"? "Survivor"? You can fault the guy but you can't complain that he
was trying to be Tolstoy or David Chase.
Two things happened to him on his way to the big hits. First, he met Penny
(Drew Barrymore) who became much much more to him than one of the string of
women that flowed in and out of his life with no thought as to their
individuality or concern for what they felt. Penny was different. Through
his ups and down, she was the anchor, the harbor to which he returned. (In
real life, not depicted here, they married and had children).
The second occurrence was the appearance of Jim Byrd, CIA agent and recruiter
of assassins. For some reason, he has been following and watching Barris
closely and thinks he "fits the profile" as a hit man, and he's not talking
in a TV or theatrical sense. Any foundation for this is obscure and highly
questionable, but that's what the author (Barris) means by "Dangerous Mind".
Is this a delusion or a canny element added to his story in order to
stimulate the plot?
Barris (in the film) argues against the 007 characterization but that doesn't
mean he doesn't go for it. The idea is that he'll chaperone the winners of
his game shows to venues around the world which are CIA assignment
destinations for a hit. Barris, he implies, becomes expert in fulfilling
these tasks and balancing the two lives with no one the wiser, not Penny, not
the TV audience, not the network bosses. No one. Has the CIA ever operated
so flawlessly? Has the application of the term "hit" ever been so wildly
One or two other hit operatives interact with him. There's the delicious
femme fatale vixen Patricia Watson (Julia Roberts) in an outsize role she
fits well into; and there's veteran assassin Keeler (Rutger Hauer) who likes
his kills photographed for his scrap book. Characters all. And a style of
fun that will have you going for want of a confortable moment in which you
might think you have a handle on its outcome. Just when you think you've
settled into your easy chair, out come the hooks and sidesteps.
This is serio-camp storytelling with a vengeance and all concerned are in for
high marks. George Clooney is behaving like a seasoned director, bringing
his material with an energy that shines with cinematic and editorial panache.
He hires one of the best offbeat writers for the screenplay (Charlie Kaufman,
a writer you can't ignore any more); casts and inspires a boatload of
performers to adopt a playful and manageable technique of style and pacing.
Kudos. An auspicious directing debut.
Perhaps most inspired of all is the look of the film. There is nothing here
that is not planned and executed with a creative vision. Cinematographer
Newton Thomas Sigel's color design (which we suspect was achieved in part
with solarization and processing manipulation in the lab) suffuses every
frame with the same kind of taste for originality that permeates the entire
movie. It is a consistent joy to behold this level of cinematic creativity,
which is a greater artistic achievement than instances in "big" productions
when sweep and physical grandeur lead to a sense of great photography. Here,
it's a designed look of period, at times washed out (as in the talking head
interviews), mostly shadowy, textured, limited tonality color effects that is
perfectly consistent with the movie's flight of imaginative innovation and
subliminally adding to it. I would single it out for this year's big award
in that category.
But nothing overshadows the central story about a man who struggled against
mediocrity with a sort of lowlife, self-involved mentality. His comic
intuitions fit the times and the need for network programming that saw his
creations gain huge success, lose it, only to regain it like the monster who
won't be smitten. Eventually, his inability to come back consumes him with
an angst not unfamiliar to others in the field with a similar career path.
But, now, he leads us on a revised journey, one of merry intrigue and wild
supposition, one we suspect is an attempt to change the game show host's
image and final destiny. His material fell into good movie making hands but
is no less suspect for that. This wild romp with a fertile mind gives new
meaning to the term, Chuck Barris.
~~ Jules Brenner