"He couldn't take it," his colleague, Dick Clark, says.
Perhaps that's why Barris claims, in the "unauthorized autobiography" on which this film is based, to have moonlighted as an assassin for the CIA. TV producer by day. Cold blooded killer by night. It's a preposterous claim, almost as preposterous as believing the star of Bedtime for Bonzo could be elected leader of the free world, but it makes for an engrossing film and a very successful directing debut for actor George Clooney.
Barris begins his TV career as a page at NBC, moves up to management, is fired, then lands on his feet behind the scenes of Clark's American Bandstand. Before long, he's sold ABC on his idea for The Dating Game, a huge success that inspires a spin-off, The Newlywed Game, neither of which have the impact of The Gong Show, the "talent" contest generally regarded as the forerunner for much of the muck currently polluting American television.
But even before his first show hits the air, he attracts the attention of a CIA agent who believes Barris has the right stuff to kill for his country. The agent appeals to the 32-year-old Barris's ambition and insecurity. "Jesus Christ was dead and back again by the time he was 33. You better get crackin'."
After training, Barris gets crackin' for America in the Cold War. The movie suggests that The Dating Game's winning couples were sent to Helsinki and West Berlin for their romantic getaways simply so Barris could carry out assassinations while officially acting as the couple's chaperone.
If juggling his TV and CIA duties isn't stressful enough, Barris also maintains an on-again, off-again relationship with Penny (Drew Barrymore), a flighty but sincere girl whose love does not deter him from pursuing sex wherever he can find it. His dalliances include one with an enemy agent (Julia Roberts) who finds him cute "in a homely way."
Clooney, directing from a screenplay by Charles Kaufman, may have sprinkled clues throughout his movie to indicate whether or not he believes Barris's tales of government intrigue, but he keeps things moving at such a rapid pace that, if the clues are there, it's hard to spot them.
What is obvious is Clooney's skill as a director. Like most first-timers, he can be accused of being self-indulgent, but since this story is so much concerned with self-indulgence, that's hardly a handicap. He stages scenes imaginatively and brings out the best in a stellar cast. Drew Barrymore is as charming as Roberts is suitably cold, and Rutger Hauer, an almost star from the 80s, has a nice bit as one of Barris's colleagues in killing. Clooney himself is aces as Barris's hard-boiled sponser from the CIA and cloaks his character in so much mystery that it's certainly possible he exists only in the same imagination that envisioned The Gong Show.
At the center of it all is Sam Rockwell as Barris. Aside from the permed hair and the short, stocky build, he may not look much like Barris, but he captures his body language and, it seems, his self-loathing only too well.
Why Barris should be so down on himself is something of a mystery itself. Critics charge The Gong Show gave people an opportunity to humiliate themselves for a few minutes of fame. Those who make that charge seem unaware that the contestants were always in on the joke. Their only crime was an ability to laugh at themselves, something Barris secretly was unable to do. If Barris's life as a hit-man for the CIA is a fantasy, what does it say about him, or perhaps American society, that he thought he could redeem his reputation by claiming to be a killer? This movie is smart enough to let us answer that question for ourselves.
Brian W. Fairbanks
Originally published at Paris Woman Journal
© 2003 Brian W. Fairbanks