Hired killers facing an identity crisis have long been a Hollywood favorite. In “Grosse Pointe Blank,” Martin Blank (John Cusack) is a hit man searching for meaning in his life who decides to attend a class reunion while on a job in his hometown. In “Get Shorty,” which also had an excellent television adaptation, Chili Palmer (John Travolta) is a hired killer who leaves the world of crime for a career as a Hollywood producer.
The tension between a life in the shadows and one in the spotlight is also at the heart of the new HBO series “Barry.” The name may be familiar to anyone who remembers the reports last year about the hacking of HBO’s servers. Besides leaking scripts for some episodes of “Game of Thrones,” the hackers also leaked two episodes from the new show, which stars Bill Hader of “Saturday Night Live.” Hader created the show with writer and producer Alec Berg (“Seinfeld,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Silicon Valley”). The show, which premiered in the U.S. last week, invites viewers to get hooked on an absurdist, melancholy and violent comedy about a hired killer seeking redemption in Hollywood.
Hader, a comic actor whose dramatic talents are the revelation here, plays Barry, a former Marine suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Although he generally exudes an almost childish naiveté, he can be cold and businesslike when he dispatches his various targets. A family friend, who worries about him but also wants to take advantage of him, convinces him that this is the only career he can succeed at, and assuages his conscience by telling him that the people he murders are bad people who deserve to die.
Everything changes during a mission in Los Angeles. There, while tracking a young actor he’s been sent to kill, Barry stumbles into an acting class by accident. Though completely lacking in dramatic talent, he suddenly catches the acting bug. After suffering so long from a sense of atrophy, his newfound passion and the camaraderie of the other actors lead him to the conclusion that this is his calling. Not surprisingly, the Mafia honchos who ordered the hit are none too pleased with his change of heart. They threaten him and his boss, and Barry has to find a way to balance the two worlds.
The black comedy woven with existential drama in “Barry” doesn’t aim for laughs. But the show’s wicked streak, beating heart and spot-on timing make it eminently watchable and appealing. Hader is especially amusing when not intentionally trying to be, and the slightest change in his expression can reflect the pull he feels for acting (and for the actress alongside him), or a complete disdain for humanity.
The winning cast also includes Henry Winkler (Fonzie from “Happy Days”), D’Arcy Carden (“the Good Place”), Stephen Root (“Idiotsitter”), Glen Fleshler (“True Detective”) and Israeli actor Mark Ivanir in a small but dual supporting role as twin brothers.
“Barry” is not all that original. In addition to the similar movie plot lines mentioned above, in its best moments, the show recalls the absurdist black humor of “Fargo” and, like it, generously plays up each character’s eccentricities. It also echoes “Search Party,” with its abundance of selfish and lost characters. In its weaker sections, it relies on characters that are too much like caricatures (the Mafia guys, in particular) and on predictable snafus. It’s a shame that HBO, which sent all eight episodes of the first season to critics for review, is not making all the episodes available to viewers in the same way. A marathon of “Barry” lends it momentum and brings out its appeal. A weekly broadcast is less suited for its tone, which may well not be gripping enough to keep most viewers coming back week after week.
Nonetheless, “Barry”’s version of the story of a hit man who finds himself a fish out of water in Hollywood is charming in its way. It works as a black comedy that combines violence and crime with humor and humanity.
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