There's surely no one better to adapt the memoirs of trash-TV pioneer Chuck Barris than Charlie Kaufman, whose scripts for Being John Malkovich and Adaptation proved assured meshings of fact and fiction. Barris is the man who created ratings smashes The Dating Game and the no-talent contest The Gong Show during the 70s; less well known are Barris’s claims that for several years he also moonlighted as a CIA hitman, and committed some 33 murders while working for them. Did he? Who knows? But Kaufman ensures that it makes for a more interesting film than a straight stick-to-the-facts biography might.
Making his directing debut is George Clooney, who stamps his intent in inventive style, using black and white and washed-out colours as often as traditional film stock, merging scenes into one and rarely keeping his camera still. It does get a little much at times, but one has to admire Clooney’s determination to make something out-of-the ordinary. You can definitely see the influence of some of the directors Clooney has worked with in the past, in particular Steven Soderberg (who executively produces), David O. Russell and the Coen brothers.
Clooney also pops up in a supporting role as Barris’s shady CIA contact, and there are amusing appearances from Julia Roberts as a fellow spook with whom Barris has an affair, and Rutger Hauer’s veteran assassin. But it’s Sam Rockwell and Drew Barrymore who anchor the film, playing Barris and his long-suffering girlfriend Penny. Barrymore is her usual sweet-natured self, but the contradiction between the no-ties relationship she advocates and the fidelity she really craves from Chuck is convincingly done.
As Barris, Sam Rockwell performs a superb job of mimicking the flippant, nervous energy of this working class Jew made good, a highly literate man torn between craving popular success and awareness that this success has been achieved through mind-numbing trash. His slow descent into a semi-crazed state – driven by the belief that there is a CIA mole out to kill him – is both alarming and hilarious.
Unfortunately, during this last quarter the film becomes a little unstuck. Clooney has maintained such a jokey tone until this point – even the cold-blooded murders of predominantly-communist US ‘enemies’ are played for laughs – that when Barris’s ‘other’ job starts catching up on him, it’s a little hard to feel too much sympathy, no matter how hard Rockwell tries. More successful is the breakdown of his and Penny’s relationship, although this too is resolved a bit neatly.
But it’s generally a lot of fun, and a good counterpoint to Auto Focus, Paul Schrader’s similarly themed but a considerably darker study of sex-addicted Hogan Heroes star Bob Crane. And watch out for a hilarious split-second cameo from Clooney and Roberts’ Ocean’s Eleven co-stars Brad Pitt and Matt Damon.