directed by , written by Charlie Kaufman from the autobiography by Chuck Barris, produced by Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, with . 114 minutes. A Miramax production. An Alliance-Atlantis release. For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 60. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
according to his autobiography, game show creator and host Chuck Barris led a double life during the late 60s and early 70s as a CIA contract killer. There are three ways to interpret this claim: one, it's true; two, Barris is delusional; three, it's an elaborate practical joke. Barris is still alive, by the way, but he ain't talking.
If Barris is telling the truth, then how ignominious it must have been for his victims. How do thet swap tales with the other guys in the spy afterlife, which I suspect resembles a seedy bar in a Graham Greene novel?
"Philby betrayed me and Beria's thugs tortured me to death in the cellars of the Lubyanka. How did you die?"
"I was shot by the host of The Gong Show."
It's a bizarre story made even more so by the screenplay's almost matter-of-fact treatment. We're locked in a hotel room with Barris (Sam Rockwell), who's undergoing a mental breakdown and decides to write his memoirs as therapy -- shades of Nicolas Cage as "Charlie Kaufman" in Adaptation. No surprise, since Kaufman wrote this as well.
And while we're on the subject of Kaufman's thematic tics, Barris is a manipulator, a person who creates game shows, but he himself is manipulated by his CIA controller, played by first-time director George Clooney.
You have to commend Clooney for his ambition in taking on the film's tricky past-and-present time scheme, and for his lack of ego in giving himself the least flashy role.
He does have a good directing mentor in Steven Soderbergh and a tremendously witty script by Kaufman. Clooney and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigal (Three Kings, The Usual Suspects) have made some peculiar choices in the film's visual style, though. The early, overexposed and colour-treated flashbacks occasionally look like washed-out video, as if we were seeing memories of a television show. In a way, Barris was everything television was, down to his fingertips.
Clooney's triumph -- aside from a great visual moment involving blood in a swimming pool -- is the casting of the familiar but barely known Sam Rockwell as Barris.
Rockwell's a bit of a chameleon, so people might not realize he was the treacherous Eric Knox in Charlie's Angels, Guy in Galaxy Quest and slick Jimmy Silk in David Mamet's Heist. Given his fondness for moustaches, different haircuts and disguises, he's not even an actor you recognize from role to role.
He conveys an uncanny approximation of Barris's ruthless neediness as a performer. It's one of the film's great jokes that virtually everyone Barris meets, from Clooney's Jim Byrd to Julia Roberts's femme fatale, Patricia Watson, seems to be operating at half normal speed. Or perhaps Roberts, Clooney and Drew Barrymore, who plays Barris's wife, are smart enough to go quiet next to Rockwell's whirligig intensity.
A highly entertaining picture and a bit of a surprise. Who'd have expected a movie about the creator of horrifyingly awful game shows to be fascinating? Or Clooney to wind up being one of those rare actors-turned-directors who didn't do it to give themselves more close-ups? firstname.lastname@example.org