Scripted by postmodern prankster Charlie Kaufman, directed by George Clooney and based on trash-TV pioneer Chuck Barris's 1984 "unauthorized autobiography," this poker-faced tall tale is galvanized by Sam Rockwell's no-holds-barred performance. New York City, 1981: Naked, unshaven and mid-nervous breakdown, Barris (Rockwell) is holed up in a rundown hotel room, staving off his inner demons by writing his life story. A showman even in extremis, he dresses up the straightforward tale of an ambitious small-town hustler who leaves his mark however dubious on the TV landscape with flights of fancy presented as the gospel truth. Barris moves to New York in the late 1950s with an eye to getting into the burgeoning television business and scoring with women. His first gig involves monitoring Dick Clark's American Bandstand against payola scandals, and he pens successful pop ditty "Palisades Park" for the show. He also meets hip, sexually liberated beatnik chick Penny (Drew Barrymore), who becomes a steady, if not quite constant, presence in his life. Impatient with traditional routes to fame and fortune, Barris gambles his future on a smarmy idea called The Dating Game, which he pitches to ABC without apparent success. Meanwhile, nearly broke and afraid he's doomed to failure, Barris is approached by a mysterious fellow (Clooney, in acting mode) who offers him a gig with the CIA. Only half believing the offer is for real and intrigued by the international-man-of-mystery idea of life as a spy, Barris accepts, only to discover he's being trained as an assassin. But it's too late to back out, and his first contract killing coincides with the network's decision to pick up The Dating Game. The show even provides a cover for Barris's missions, as he chaperones lucky winners on dates to Berlin and Helsinki and does a little wet work while they're sightseeing. Clooney interpolates interviews with real-life witnesses (including Dating Game host Jim Lange, Dick Clark and Gong Show panelist Jaye P. Morgan) who seem to validate this preposterous account of Barris's secret life, which is just more of the game. First-time director Clooney confidently employs a dizzying combination of film stocks, overlapping images and editing styles to tell the fractured fairy tale of Barris's life; the freewheeling mix of sunny nostalgia for the boomerang coffee-table era and sleazy fascination with its underbelly recalls Paul Schrader's AUTO FOCUS (2002). But while that film took certain dramatic liberties with actor Bob Crane's life story, this one is an extended riff on Barris's already suspect account of his own. It's tremendously clever, but ultimately pointless.
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- Released: 2002
- Rating: R
- Review: Scripted by postmodern prankster Charlie Kaufman, directed by George Clooney and based on trash-TV pioneer Chuck Barris's 1984 "unauthorized autobiography," this poker-faced tall tale is galvanized by Sam Rockwell's no-holds-barred performance. New York Ci… (more)