Looking at the amount of money it has made in the ten years since release, the chances are reasonably high that you haven’t seen this film. If I were you, I’d look into fixing that.
International travel looks like fun.
Chuck Barris makes game shows. He also happens to kill people for the CIA. This is his story, in his own words.
In the wake of Good Night, And Good Luck and the recent Ides Of March, some people might have forgotten about George Clooney’s directorial debut, made in the immediate aftermath of Ocean’s Eleven. Based on the “unauthorised autobiography” of the creator of The Dating Game and The Gong Show, it is a darkly comic tale of love, insider television and international intrigue.
When Chuck published his autobiography in 1984, that was him coming out to the world about his double life as a government assassin throughout the sixties and seventies. I’m sure it was no understatement to say it came as a surprise. The movie rights were snapped up almost immediately but the film languished in development for over fifteen years, passing through the hands of countless directors and actors until Clooney got his hands on it. Working from a script by the king of quirk, Charlie Kaufman, George has put together one of the more unique biopics you will ever see, full of the sort of visual flair and creativity that you don’t often find in a debut piece.
The film is very heavy on the style front and I can understand why some viewers didn’t respond to that with much enthusiasm but for me it worked like a treat. Barris’ story is so far out there already, that to have been more reserved visually would have been a disservice. Clooney and his cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (one of the most exciting DoP’s working today, by the way) employ everything from infra-red film stock to break-away sets and dramatic, swooping crane shots. One moment that will probably stick with me for a very long time is in the first act of the movie. It’s a montage sequence in which Chuck goes from a tourist in the NBC building, to a page leading his own tour groups, to applying for NBC’s management fasttrack program. It’s a sequence covering at least several weeks if not a few months but Clooney and Sigel shoot it in one continuous take, with the actors running through the background and changing clothes on the fly when they are out of shot. It might seem gimmicky at first, but as well as being a neat bit of ambition and virtuoso film-making, the dynamism of it perfectly echoes Barris’ own free-wheeling state of mind.
The two have also recorded a joint commentary for the DVD. Now I’m a total geek for commentaries anyway (the day I bought Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever, I watched it six times back-to-back for the movie itself, then each of the five commentary tracks. Yes, I’m that guy) but this is one of the better ones: equal parts ass jokes, in-depth discussions on the filmmaking process and references to Clooney’s directorial influences and the homages he has sneaked into the flick. Very entertaining stuff; definitely worth a listen.
Putting aside all the flashy tricks for a minute though, this film stands or falls on the strength of its central performance. As Chuck Barris, Sam Rockwell is a revelation. After several scene-stealing supporting roles, this was his first full-on, leading man moment and he knocks it out of the park. Drew Barrymore is as charming and endearing as ever as the free-spirited Penny, the great love of his life. Given Rockwell’s history prior to this film, it is a touch ironic that a one-scene wonder (well, strictly two scenes, but who’s counting?) threatens to steal the whole film out from under him; former Robocop Robert John Burke is a slice of fried gold as Chuck’s CIA training instructor Jenks. Clooney himself gives a restrained but no less charismatic performance as Chuck’s recruiter and handler, while Julia Roberts breaks out all the femme fatale tricks as a fellow agent.
I have to hand it to Chuck Barris. If you’re going to make up something insanely wonderful for your autobiography, claiming to be a CIA assassin is one of the best stories to run with. The CIA are forbidden from confirming or denying the names of any covert operatives they have had, and even if they did come out and cry bullshit, everyone would think “well of course they’re going to deny it”. You can’t lose! But then, there is the chance that the whole thing is true… Make up your own mind, but hear these Confessions first.
(And yes, that is Michael Cera asking for a blowjob as 11-year-old Chuck)