Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:05 pm 
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Barris, Clooney and Kaufman make a great ménage à trois

What a story for Charlie Kaufman to adapt: Chuck Barris's kooky autobiography, penned during a period of despair, describing an unbelievable double life: half producer of pioneering schlock-TV game shows, half CIA hit man. There is a framework: a naked, bearded, disintegrating Barris in a New York hotel isolated, depressed, and writing the book. It's all hallucinatory and unreal, joyous and deadpan, and George Clooney, party boy glamour-puss George, has come along with lighthearted suavity to direct it, in his first time at the helm of a film, with some of his pals and former associates to help him out - "Three Kings" cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, Soderbergh to produce, Brad and Matt for cameos, "Gong Show" regulars to appear in real interviews that look like mock ones, the editor of "Traffic" to cut the film, actor Sam Rockwell, unknown enough to meld into the part as Chuck, Julia Roberts, famous enough to seem amusingly outlandish as a Mata Hari CIA colleague, and Drew Barrymore as Barris' ditzily faithful girlfriend Penny. It's a wild ride, and if the tone seems to vary, well, that's because we're shifting realities every five minutes. Pay close attention, but have fun: that's Charlie Kaufman's watchword.

As the story begins Barris has failed. He's standing buck naked in that hotel room and we watch him from behind. (Sometimes the whole movie seems to be about Rockwell's butt. There's a great scene when he first meets Penny after sleeping with her roommate and uses the refrigerator door as a fig leaf through the whole conversation.) Chuck's game shows have been cancelled and he surveys his life and sees it as a washout, a joke, from his being raised as a girl till a sister came along and his sleazy adolescent seduction of a little girl he tricked into thinking his penis tasted like candy, to the TV shows banking on Americans' willingness to humiliate themselves long before Jerry Springer and Reality TV came along. He's a cheap Cassanova who wrote one pop tune nobody remembers. It all seems fantasy now, as he tells his crazy story and makes it crazier with his CIA embroidery. This meta-story could mean several things: that Barris' dumbing down of the American audience with "The Dating Game" and "The Gong Show" is as bad as murder, or that his real existence is so humiliating he wants to escape into fantasy.

What the hit man episodes provide is a mock solemn foil for Barris' absurd real life as a molder of the public mind, and a second world for Charlie Kaufman's screenplay to pop in and out of. All this is as richly self-reflexive and post-modern as Kaufman's previous writing in "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation," and it's also an additional gloriously cinematic opportunity to weave garish TV sets in and out of the multiple foreign locales of Barris' supposed CIA hits, which are actually places the real life Barris went to chaperoning winners of "The Dating Game." An ingenious crossover occurs when one of the dating game contestants, a homely fat man who (absurdly) wins out over co-contestants Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, turns out to have been an East German spy. And Chuck only escapes from this caper because the East Germans want to trade him and six other CIA operatives to get this turkey back. It's like a nightmare within a nightmare. A delightful touch is Clooney's own deadpan turn as Barris' CIA handler, sporting a big moustache and speaking always in a deep, sepulchral voice like some mocking unreal alter ego. It's all too Nabokovian for words. No wonder femme fatale Roberts quotes the Russian writer. Clooney's like Peter Sellers' Quilty in Kubrick's "Lolita," a haunting, half-real doppelgänger always at his back.

It's inevitable to contrast this movie with Paul Schrader's recent "Auto Focus," where another tacky TV personality, "Hogan's Heroes" star Bob Crane, also had a shadow life. Indeed "Auto Focus" may seem like some unsavory double of "Dangerous Mind." But Crane's shadow life was real, and slimy, and that makes all the difference. "Confessions" is fun because the absurd counter plot Barris himself provided in his hallucinatory autobiography turns everything into meta-fiction. Barris may in some ways be no less repulsive than Crane, but Barris's story, despite his self-pity, all turns into fun - and pop culture satire - when Kaufman plays with it and Sam Rockwell acts it out.

And Clooney and company provide a lot of ratcheted up silliness. To begin with, Sam Rockwell has a mercurial quality, alternatively grinning at his luck, comically scared, or blandly excusing one of his excesses. As the CIA hit man malgré lui, he's a rubbery Everyman who protests but does what he's told and enjoys the perks. At times there are extreme turns à la Kubrick like the FCC mouthpiece who terrorizes "Dating Game" contestants out of talking dirty before a show, or the CIA trainer who accidentally garrotes one volunteer in a demonstration and then immediately asks for another. The CIA camp is a stretch of tundra wasteland (the movie was shot in Canada), and when the class of hit men graduates, they all head for a bus with identical handbags and little black suits and hats. Mexico is all shot in yellow as in "Traffic." Berlin where Barris goes for one of his first hits later has turned into a movable set that's carted away when his game shows are crumbling - a most Nabokovian moment.

All this is a comment on how unreal the Cold War was in relation to the upbeat pop cultural world of the Sixties. The movie has one scene slide into another as if to play a "now you see me now you don't" game with reality. Actual "Gong Show" clips are interspersed with comic recreations. Rockwell dances around with manic joy as host in early shows, then as it's been given a death sentence he comes on like a drugged zombie. Through all this Drew Barrymore is good natured, warm, and loose. There's none of the heavy-handed psychologizing of "Auto Focus." As the limo drives off toward the end after their wedding, Barris confesses he's a CIA man and has killed 33 human beings, and Penny pauses a minute and then bursts into laughter, and Barris joins in.

The real Barris gets the last word. Or does he?

January 25, 2003

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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