'Barry': A Hitman Goes Hollywood

On the new HBO black comedy about a killer-for-hire who wants to be an actor, Bill Hader goes all-in as the star and a producer, director and writer.

click to enlarge Bill Hader stars as "Barry." - PHOTO: Michele K. Short/courtesy of HBO
PHOTO: Michele K. Short/courtesy of HBO
Bill Hader stars as "Barry."

As a Saturday Night Live super-fan, it’s always great to see a performer go on to solo success in movies or TV. Bill Hader, who starred on the sketch comedy show from 2005 to 2013, is the kind of performer I hated to see leave SNL but was excited to follow his next projects. He was fantastic in the films Trainwreck and The Skeleton Twins (a nice preview of his stellar dramatic acting chops), but his new series Barry (10:30 p.m. Sundays, HBO) is perfect to showcase his talents.

Hader is all-in on this project — in addition to starring as the titular lead, he has a hand in creating, directing, writing and producing this offbeat dark comedy.

Barry is a former Marine turned apathetic, low-level hitman. He doesn’t necessarily seem like an evil monster — he’s obviously in a rut, damaged by the evils of war and depressed by his lonely lifestyle. But then again, he does murder people for a living (albeit mostly bad guys).

His next hit takes him from snowy Cleveland to sunny Los Angeles to snuff out a man who’s crossed the Chechen mob. Barry appears to just go through the motions, following his target Ryan until he unwittingly follows him into an acting class. Haphazardly posing as a student to keep his cover, Barry begrudgingly acts out a scene with Ryan in front of the group.

And with that, Barry is bitten by the acting bug. Seriously.

Not only does he enjoy the experience and tap an unknown passion, but he also finds a kinship with this band of weirdos — classic theater kids grown up. These startup actors are hardly successful — they go out to celebrate one member’s casting as a corpse on CSI — but they’re eager, optimistic and, most importantly, supportive of one another. It’s actually a sweet moment when Barry realizes this is a potential connection he’s needed, perhaps without even realizing he did.

At the same time, he knows he must get back to business, even if he’s gotten close to and humanized his “mark.” Unfortunately, even a brief, momentary pause in the hit plan results in dire consequences for everyone involved. Now Barry wants out more than ever — and seriously wants to pursue acting as a career, instead. Of course, this presents a number of issues. It’s never easy to leave a life of crime, so he agrees to take one final job while exploring thespian work. He soon learns the pursuit of acting is in direct conflict with the anonymity required by a contract killer.

Hader nails his portrayal of Barry. There’s a lot of humor in his character’s serious intensity. And he shares the screen with many other standouts. Newcomer Sarah Goldberg plays Barry’s love interest in the acting class, Sally. She has a genuinely sweet, earnest quality that seems like it would be rare in the Hollywood scene. Their teacher is portrayed by none other than Henry Winkler, who comes off as a well-meaning hack of an acting coach (hackting coach?). But as washed-up as he appears, he is deeply respected by his students. Barry’s “handler” Fuches, who assigns Barry’s hits and manages the business side of their operation, is embodied by the delightful Stephen Root.

On the other end of the spectrum, some of the supporting effort feels a bit stale: There’s a rag-tag crew of bumbling cops and a host of stereotypical foreign gangsters — not the most creative or original characters, but they serve their roles and elicit a few laughs along the way.

When Barry first premiered late last month, there was a lot of “not your average comedy” chatter — whatever that means. Yes, this is a black comedy. I’m talking torture scenes here. But why is that notion so surprising? Wasn’t there something inherently off-kilter and creepy about most of Hader’s comedic characters on SNL? Stefon is dark, y’all!

Barry works because the tone is perfect. Hader shines in a rather heavy role. The humor comes from everything around him and his reactions to this crazy universe — not just the seedy world of organized crime, but the life of a professional performer. 

How Barry will juggle the two remains to be seen, but he may just get by with a little help from his friends.

Contact Jac Kern: @jackern