The Hit Man

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 24, 2003

In Baltimore, there is a visionary cultural institution with a distinguished name; in the local parlance, however, it is known as the Museum of Art by Crazy People. That is exactly where the world premiere of "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," George Clooney's take on Chuck Barris's autobiography, should have been held.

How crazy? Real crazy. Crazy like a crazy fox. Crazier than a crazy fox. This crazy: Chuck Barris invented "The Gong Show," but when the world ceased to pay attention to him, he announced in an autobiography his delirious fantasy that he had been an assassin for the CIA.

How do we know Barris's claim is screwball? Well, in the first place, I was an assassin for the CIA, and I never saw him hanging out in the halls at Langley or at the Company picnics or bowling league. We assassins had a killer bowling team at the Herndon Readi-Strike! We used to cream those wusses in Blackmail & Extortion!

In the second place . . . I mean, really. A quiz-show producer without language skills, local contacts, cover stories, meaningful clandestine training, escape routes, an emergency communications program, fallback plans . . . wandering the Third World, shooting people. What Barris seems not to understand is that the killing part is basically pretty easy; it's the getting in and getting out that marks the professional. I mean, really.

But the trick of the movie is that it takes this claim straight -- no ice, no chaser, no winks or nods. Do the moviemakers believe Barris? Not for a second. But they play it as he wrote it: the literal, deadpan story of a man who invented vulgar quiz shows, made millions, had sex with a lot of women, was widely castigated as a barbarian by the genteel elite -- and killed people for the CIA, until a nervous breakdown caused him to confront and recount it all (helpfully providing the flashback structure for the film). It's so hard being Chuck Barris!

A character actor named Sam Rockwell -- you won't remember him, but you'll remember the characters he played, such as the demented tag-along in "Galaxy Quest" -- is excellent and commanding in his promotion to main man. He has one of those memorably unmemorable faces so helpful to an actor, so debilitating to a star. He gets Chuck's desperate insecurity, his bohemian rhapsodies, his haunted nature, his drive, his strange capacity to take drivel dead seriously. But Rockwell, though he's onscreen in every scene, is possibly the least provocative of the four personalities that haunt the enterprise, the other three being Barris himself, director/co-star Clooney and, oddly, the co-producer, Steven Soderbergh.

You feel Barris everywhere in the film, which is essentially a plunge into the strangeness of the mind he self-advertises as "dangerous." When people call themselves "dangerous," aren't they really flattering themselves as well as marketing a product? Who would read a book or see a movie titled "Confessions of an Essentially Harmless Schnook"?

On the facts, Chuck Barris had a cunning mind, a clever mind, a greedy mind, an ambitious mind -- even, you might say, a natural television mind; but he was about as dangerous as Dick Clark, though not as smart. His most salient charm was his utter lack of charm, which made him seem almost like a naif -- when he was actually a ganef and the public was his mark. As the movie chronicles vividly enough, he was an ambitious Philadelphia hustler who caught on in the early '60s at a network, where he proved a quick study at cheapo production. But he kept losing jobs as policies and politics changed, and he understood soon enough that working at the network wasn't the answer: Selling to the network was the answer.

He had energy, he had deep conviction in the shallowness of his purpose, and he had relentlessness. Here's what part of "No" he didn't understand: All of it. Finally, in 1966, he sold "The Dating Game," based on a shrewd principle: Nothing sells like sexual yearning. If you can fake that, you can make a fortune. The show trafficked in stupidity, inanity, smarmy double-entendre, and the rest, of course, is hysteria. "The Newlywed Game" followed, then his masterwork, "The Gong Show," which he himself, in a frenzy of narcissism, hosted.

That's the Chuck Barris we know and love: slightly cute, slightly cuddly, completely disengaged, doing inappropriate stuff with his hands and his hair, coming across as the world's first game show anti-host, in his way as pathetic as the contestants, those pathetic samples of rejected tissue who showed up for the masochistic pleasure of being destroyed by such giants of entertainment as Jaye P. Morgan and Rex Reed. My favorite -- from a wasted young manhood spent watching too many "Gong Shows" -- was a pitiful guy who sang a song called "I'm Just an Old Weakie," "weakie" being a synonym for "weakling," a word for which he couldn't find a rhyme. He lasted one refrain before being gonged back to richly deserved oblivion.

During all this, Chuck claims, he was killing people overseas.

Clooney, to his credit, doesn't blink at this absurd assertion. He seems to get a deeper truth, which is that Barris's fantasies about himself are more revealing than the facts about him. One is left in some sort of pitiful awe at Barris's childish fantasy that expresses itself in godlike identification with the assassin. What secret rages, what deep feelings of hostility, inferiority, exile and self-hatred he must feel to see the pinnacle of his existence that moment when he points the silenced Walther, there's a pffft, and one less American enemy breathes the free air of Earth. And how sad that a man who engineered the moment when Rex Reed gonged Mr. Weakie would stoop so low!

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