DIRECTED BY George Clooney
STARRING Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore, George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Rutger Hauer
Opens March 14, Cert 15, 113 mins
"My name is Charles Hirsch Barris, I have written pop songs. I have been a television producer. I am responsible for polluting the airwaves with mind-numbing puerile entertainment. In addition, I have murdered 33 human beings."
Chuck Barris was the inventor of The Dating Game and The Gong Show. He also claims to have been a CIA hitman. His bizarre autobiography, filmed here by George Clooney (for Clooney and Steven Soderbergh's Section Eight production company) interweaves two aspects of the American post-war story—happy, crappy light entertainment and murderous black ops—to suggest not just a personal but a national schizophrenia. As a film, this is a hugely impressive showcase for Clooney's skills and those of four actors at the top of their game. It's also probably the first and last movie about a game show host-cum-assassin. Until The Les Dawson Story gets made, anyway.
Barris (Rockwell) starts the story of his "wasted life" with the day he cons his way into a job in TV and persuades someone to let him make The Dating Game. After making some changes—"We can't have black men getting blow jobs on television"—it's a hit. Soon afterwards he gets approached by CIA fixer Jim Byrd (Clooney) to join the Company. Initially Barris resists the idea—"I'm not killing people, my future's in television!"—but before long he's a fully trained-up hitman, chaperoning the show's winning couples to specially-chosen romantic locations where he can slip off and do a spot of killing.
The story becomes fairly surreal and dreamlike at this point, raising the question—is this truth, lies or madness? When Russell Crowe imagined himself caught up in 1940s noir-style chase scenes in A Beautiful Mind, he was implicitly deluded. Here Barris' exploits behind the Iron Curtain are part John le Carré, part Ian Fleming and surely all fabrication, but two major characters seem too real to be figments of his delusions. Rutger Hauer, now heroically wrinkled like a Dutch Richard Harris, plays a German spy having a midlife crisis which rubs off on Barris. Julia Roberts plays a black widow spymistress who dissects Barris' self-hatred by quoting Nietzsche: "The man who despises himself still respects himself as one who despises." Their input sheds more light on Barris' character than anything which happens in the 'real' world. Meanwhile, it's the hallucinatory weirdness of The Gong Show, all jazz-dancing fatties and masked comedians, which seems like the made-up part...
Admittedly, these existential twists and turns make it fairly hard to get your teeth into the film. It's more of an intellectual than an emotional affair. Perhaps this is because screenwriter Charlie Kaufman added an extra level of his trademark ambiguity to an already baffling story. Still, the performances more than make up for the head-scratching. Barris' girlfriend, for example, drifts in and out of the story, never seeming to connect with him, but Drew Barrymore plays her with such supernatural sweetness and light that you look forward to the next time she meanders on screen. Rockwell swerves so masterfully from hustling producer to manic host to glacial killer to emotionless boyfriend that you may wonder why you've never heard of him before (he can also be seen in the excellent Heist, Safe Men, and the forthcoming Clooney collaboration Welcome To Collinwood.)
Towards the end, there are some fantastic set-pieces—notably a poolside death scene, framed like a painting, that you suspect either Kaufman or Clooney has been planning for decades. There may be too many, in fact: things might have been simpler if Clooney had seen Paul Schrader's Auto Focus beforehand. That was also about a TV star's secret life (of sex addiction) but was more powerful for sticking to the point. Cavils aside, this is a very, very good-looking movie. Many of the coolest visual touches are straight out of the Soderbergh book: two scenes intercut (a bar brawl and a domestic argument), scenes with washed-out monotones (all orange, all blue), fast zooms and jump cuts. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel reprises some of his tricks from Three Kings, while film editor Stephen Mirrione riffs on his super-suave Ocean's Eleven techniques. In fact, it's hard to pick out what, exactly, in all this artistry is down to Clooney. If you had to guess, you'd say it was the jokey little touches, such as the phone conversation where, instead of using a split screen, the camera simply pans right to show the guy Barris is talking to, sitting 10 feet away from him on a different part of the set. Cute.
Stylishly made, then, but narratively flawed, time will tell whether this is a typical 'George Clooney film'—but you want to find out. You really want to see what he does next. And who expected that from the bloke with the quiff in Return Of The Killer Tomatoes?
Rating: 4 / 10