"The Gong Show Movie"? Get the hook!

What might have been a moderately riotous underdog farce about eccentricity as a national resource has been fashioned instead as a self-promotional piece and classic case of over-reaching for Chuck Barris, who co-wrote the film with Robert ("Putney Swope") Downey, stars in it as himself, takes credit for the direction, and wrote the words and music for five songs on the soundtrack.

The point of the picture appears to be that Chuck Barris took the sins of the world on his shoulders when he embarked on production of "The Gong Show," for four seasons a daytime fixture on NBC and also a weekly syndicated nighttime show.

The program became a kind of Circus Maximus for the '70s. Contestants, often talentless in the extreme, paraded themselves before a national audience and three celebrity judges with the intentionally paltry prize of $516.32 their only tangible reward. The real prize was the chance to appear on TV for at least 45 seconds -- the minimum exposure an act would get before it could be gonged off by one of the celebs.

Certainly the happiest sequences in the film are blow-ups from old "Gong Show" tapes in which people crack eggs over their heads in rhythm or cluck like a chicken to "In the Mood." A few of the acts, caught in crudely shot rehearsal footage, were too badly to be shown on the air, but movie-goers expecting to hear many of panelist Jaye P. Morgan's naughty and frequently bleeped remarks will be disappointed.

She does at one point open her blouse and flash one of the acts, but this proves a dubious showstopper.

The film's narrative framework consists mainly of repeated scenes of Barris and his girlfriend (Barris' real-life girlfriend and non-actress Robin Altman) trying to escape from auditioning rowdies on the streets or commiserating on what a rough life Barris leads and how he ought to get away from it all.

Eventually he does fly away to Morocco, but all the "Gong Show" regulars flock around him and sing "Don't Get Up," which is supposed to mean, "Please come back." The Barris pose of martyr-to-mob-rule and suffering messiah of the loonies seems more embarrassing than any of the "Gong Show" acts, many of which are at least pulled off with liberated self-mockery.

Barris appears intent on earning himself a hallowed corner in the annals of gall; one of the first shots in the film is careful to include his book

"You and Me, Babe." Some of the touches apparently contributed by Downey -- including a very funny hospital scene in which nurses club patients into submission -- brighten the non-"Gong" interludes, but the film's terrain remains a schizzy hill-and -valley proposition. After the fourth or fifth deep valley, it hardly seems worth waiting for hills any more.