I’m still trying to figure out why no one wanted anything to do with this project. Among some of the names I read that were attached to this in some fashion or another were Sean Penn, Mike Myers, Johnny Depp and Nicole Kidman. After what seemed like an eternity, George Clooney (Ocean’s Eleven) decided to tackle the film as a first time director. The project seemed to roll from there, casting Sam Rockwell (Heist) as the lead, along with marquee names Drew Barrymore (Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle… and Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich) in supporting roles. Rockwell plays Gong Show host and television producer Chuck Barris, in writer Charlie Kaufman’s (Being John Malkovich) adaptation of the book of the same name. The story poses the question; What if the man who created The Newlywed Game was actually a CIA hitman?
The story focuses on Barris’ life, but first starts with him, naked in a hotel room in the early 1980’s. By this time, he’s a shadow of what he used to be, and he believes that writing his memoirs will be a cathartic process. He recounts his stories as a youngster obsessed by success, and the women that come with it. He remains a dreamer while working on the set of American Bandstand in the early 60’s, and meets Penny (Barrymore). Chuck and Penny have a friendship that grows more intimate with time. And despite Chuck’s ups and downs in his life, Penny is usually there to pick him up.
Now here’s where it gets a bit gray. Shortly before Chuck’s first TV show idea is picked up by ABC (The Dating Game), he runs into Jim Byrd (Clooney), a CIA operative who has been observing Chuck for awhile and thinks he has the profile of a perfect assassin. Chuck is skeptical at first, but agrees. The film teases a quick scene where he says goodbye to a couple of fellow classmates from a remote CIA training facility, and Byrd believes his cover (as a chaperone taking lucky game show winners on “exotic” vacations) would be perfect to help pull off the jobs he needs to pull off. Along the way, Chuck meets Patricia Watson (Roberts), who helps Chuck with his jobs in Europe from time to time. The number of jobs Chuck does over the years, combined with the breakout success of The Gong Show, drives Chuck in a downward spiral to where he doesn’t know who to trust, and how to find some peace in the world.
So, I guess the big question is: Was Chuck a CIA hitman? Well, the film doesn’t answer it specifically, and for that matter, to this day, Barris’ answer to that question is all over the map. And by not answering that question, the film turns out to be much better than given credit for. Putting aside some of the film’s focus on Barris’ CIA “career,” who is Chuck Barris? Well, speaking as a balding 30 something who’s never met him and who barely saw The Gong Show may not be the best judge here. I think that Barris is a bit of a dreamer at the beginning of the film until Byrd brings him into the Agency, then his optimism is shattered by the lifestyle of an Agent, so much so that the end, he just wants to be loved and find approval for the things he does. Aside from being an “assassination enthusiast,” a lot of people credit (or blame) Barris for starting the trash TV that we see a lot of now. At the end of the day, he wants someone to tell him that things are going to be OK. Don’t we all want that?
Clooney’s directing debut is good. Depending on whether or not you’re a fan of such artsy camera techniques may impact how well you like the film. In my opinion, Kaufman’s approach to the source material is imaginative, as all things by Kaufman seem to be, and the cast does a good job with the film, with Rockwell’s work being outstanding. He really becomes Barris, and seeing some of the archived footage of the Gong Show makes you appreciate the job he did. Recently released on video, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind will pleasantly surprise you.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is OK, though wasted sometimes, because some of the dialogue comes through at barely above whisper level. Barris’ (and other) songs sound very tight on the track though, so there aren’t any real issues I have here.
Presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen, Clooney and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (Three Kings and the X-Men movies) provide an interesting palette to the film. Barris’ pre-CIA days are shown with bold colors much like Catch Me If You Can, but these are more blown out than the Spielberg film. When Chuck joins the CIA and starts doing jobs in Europe, the wintry grays really stand out. Black levels are pretty constant, and the detail captured on film is shown well on the transfer.
Clooney and Sigel provide a running commentary for the film. It’s much more subdued and soft-spoken than I would have expected from Clooney, as he provides a good deal of technical information, and mentions film influences in certain shots. While there isn’t too much here in the way of anecdotes, it is full of technical information, and well worth listening to.
A Behind the Scenes featurette is available in 7 different segments, or you can play the whole thing, running about 23 minutes. They cover the story, Clooney’s attraction to it, Rockwell’s approach to playing Barris, Clooney’s method of directing, and explaining the sets and wardrobe for the film. It covers enough material to the point that’s it’s a pretty good extra.
10 deleted scenes totaling about 23 minutes are here too, along with an optional commentary by Clooney and Sigel. Some of the scenes are extended scenes from the film, and each is pretty good, along with an extended look at Barris’ first hit that I thought was good, but probably didn’t suit the film that well. Rockwell’s screen test footage is included, and it’s a 6 minute look at some of the stuff he did in rehearsing the role.
The Real Chuck Barris is another 6 minute piece, this has interview footage with Barris and some Gong Show regulars, and it ends with Barris (again) refusing to answer the question about his secret past. An almost 5 minute montage of acts from the show are included, with introduction by Rockwell (as Barris). They are as silly and bizarre as you’d expect, with baby lady being the winner on this group.
Miramax decided to include a Sneak Peeks section comprising of trailers and ads for the soundtrack, along with Dysfunktional Family, Kill Bill, A View From the Top, and a trailer length ad by Miramax that basically says to the viewer “Look at how great we are!”
Miramax puts out another DVD with superb video quality, and it’s debatable whether the audio and extras are enough here, but the film is very well done, and those curious as to what the inside hubbub was all about will be pleasantly surprised by this one.
Special Features List
- Feature commentary with Director George Clooney and Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel
- Deleted Scenes with commentary
- Six Behind the Scene Vignettes
- Sam Rockwell Screen Test
- “Gong Show” Acts
- The Real Chuck Barris Documentary
- Still Gallery