Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell, "The Green Mile") is known for introducing such shows as "The Newlywed Game," 'based on the belief that marrieds would sell each other out for a major appliance,' to American television. As Barris contemplates his empty life, he claims not only lowest-common-denominator TV and endless womanizing have left him a hollow shell, but murders committed as a hit man contracted to the CIA in his "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind."
George Clooney makes a stylish directorial debut with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's ("Adaptation") adaptation of the Barris bio, but like "Auto Focus" earlier this year, this look at a 60's TV personality with a secret life keeps one at arm's length. Barris' CIA assassinations make a neat metaphor for indiscriminate cultural degradation and personal emotional failings, but neither Rockwell nor Clooney are successful in getting us to feel either love or loathing for the man.
As Barris' long-suffering girlfriend Penny (Drew Barrymore, "Charlie's Angels") bangs on his hotel door, Chuck wallows in misery before a typewriter and looks back at his first misogynistic move, telling the younger sister of a childhood friend that his penis tastes just like a strawberry lollipop. (In fact, he meets Penny going for a midnight snack from the bedroom of her roommate.) As he leaps from songwriter ("Palisades Park") to television producer ("The Dating Game"), he's approached by CIA Agent Jim Byrd (George Clooney) as having the right profile to contract for the organization. Not until Chuck undergoes training, however, does he realize Byrd means him to become an assassin (along with the most infamous - Chuck takes leave of his fellow trainees with a breezy 'Allright Jack, take care Lee'). After initial hesitation, Byrd convinces Chuck that his day job would be the perfect cover and so the next Dating Game winners are treated to a wintry trip to Finland.
As Chuck enjoys making contact with fellow agent Patricia Watson (Julia Roberts), he dodges Penny's attempts to settle down. Barris spends years living a double life. Called to face the music of cancellations and a traitorous mole, Barris takes stock and finally does right by Penny, although by this time he is offering badly damaged goods.
Rockwell has some very funny lines as the over-caffeinated producer, but he takes Barris' emptiness a bit too literally. Clooney paces his anti-hero from one clever set piece to the next but it is difficult to become invested in the character. Rockwell renders Barris a cartoon. Barrymore brings a warmth to Penny that's lacking in the rest of the film. Her free-love hippy-chick naivety is the perfect counterpoint to Barris' cold control freak.
Julia Roberts gives her femme fatale spy a cold but juicy maturity, particularly in her last scene (a reminder of a Cary Elwes/Wallace Shawn bit from "The Princess Bride") and Rutger Hauer brings depth to Keeler, another Barris CIA colleague. Clooney himself keeps Byrd a monotone mystery, more a device than a character. Friends of George abound in his first film, with additional "Ocean's Eleven" cast members Matt Damon and Brad Pitt appearing as losing Dating Game contestants.
Clooney's movie has a distinctive look, in part due to cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel's ("Three Kings") surreal technique which looks like the film's color has been stripped and retinted. Clooney and production designer James D. Bissell ("Cats & Dogs") have affected an air of theatricality that perfectly suits a story about a man who is not what he seems. One scene is overlapped to the backdrop of another like a non-mirror image and barriers slide to reveal new sets like a Chinese box. Interview cameos by such Barris cronies as Gong Show regular Jaye P. Morgan are effective in giving the film a truth in contrast to its connivance. Alex Wurman ("Thirteen Conversations About One Thing") contributes a distinctive score.
Barris has had an interesting life and Clooney has made an artful debut, but Chuck Barris' lost soul has taken the spark out of the film along with it.
Robin's review coming soon!.
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