Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Director : George Clooney
Screenplay : Charlie Kaufman (based on the book by Chuck Barris)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Sam Rockwell (Chuck Barris), George Clooney (Jim Byrd), Drew Barrymore (Penny), Julia Roberts (Patricia), Rutger Hauer (Keeler), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Debbie), David Hirsch (Freddie Cannon), Jerry Weintraub (Larry)
In his “unauthorized” autobiography, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, TV producer Chuck Barris, the creator of such memorably cheesy game shows as The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and, most notoriously, The Gong Show, claimed to have worked on the side as an assassin for the CIA, during which time he killed 33 people. The veracity of this outrageous claim has never been substantiated one way or another, and it likely never will be. But, that’s exactly what gives it the tantalizing taste of an urban legend, the kind of rumor you know is bunk but just can’t help repeating to someone else. It’s so ridiculously delicious that you simply want it to be true. Its very weirdness is what makes it compelling—who could make something like that up?
Well, the same person who was the first to brainstorm the idea of allowing talentless hacks to embarrass themselves on national television, that’s who. When his career began sliding into oblivion in the early 1980s, Barris had already been labeled one of the primary destroyers of Western culture, called at various times the “King of Schlock,” the “Baron of Bad Taste,” and the “Ayatollah of Trasherola” (of course, such pronouncements usually come from people who hold on to the fervent belief that a mass medium like television should be used strictly for cultural enlightenment, which seems to go against the very nature of the medium itself). So, it isn’t hard to see why Barris would pass himself off as an assassin—having been responsible for the degradation of Western culture, maybe letting on that he had killed a few dozen enemies of the nation might redeem his stature.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, an adaptation of Barris’ autobiography penned by meta-scribe Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation.), takes Barris’ claims hook, line, and sinker, never once questioning their authenticity. Rather, Kaufman runs with it, realizing a great tall tale when he sees it. George Clooney, making his directorial debut, and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (Three Kings) allow the film to unfold in a striking visual palette of washed out colors and deep shadows, almost as if we’re watching it on an old television set whose picture tube is about to burn out.
Barris is played by Sam Rockwell, who has played dozens of supporting roles over the past decade and a half and here is allowed to sink his teeth into a role that is part gimmick and part genuine exploration of personal failure (which could describe the film as a whole). Barris is all goofy charm, filled with equal parts horny chutzpah and inner self-loathing. Beginning as a page for NBC in the mid-1950s, he works his way up the ladder, writing a one-hit-wonder pop song before striking it big after pitching his concept for The Dating Game (which at first is passed over for Hootenanny).
During this time, he is approached by Jim Byrd (George Clooney), a government operative who tells him that he “fits the profile” for an assassin. Barris takes Byrd up on his offer, using his role as the producer of The Dating Game as a perfect cover for his “other” job. After each show, the winning couple gets a free trip to, well, some frozen East European country so that Barris can tag along as a chaperone and knock off a few communist spies on the side. The idea is so outrageous, so patently ridiculous, that it almost feels like it could work. The movie plays it just straight enough to be palatable, but also camps up the jokiness of it, particularly the looks on the winning couple’s faces when the announcer gleefully proclaims that they will spend their time together in West Berlin.
Barris is also involved with a woman, a free spirit named Penny (Drew Barrymore) who begins as a beatnik, turns into a hippie, and eventually becomes Barris’ salvation. She is the one constant in his increasingly fragmented life, even though she has no idea what he does on the side. Barris is also involved with another CIA agent, a smoky seductress named Patricia (Julia Roberts) who is like every femme fatale rolled into one shadowy caricature. Roberts plays up the role mightily, although she’s never fully convincing as a cunning government operative with secrets to hide. This is a role that probably should have gone to a character actress who better fit the part, rather than a movie star.
Although Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a brilliantly realized film—visually unique and always intriguing—it never quite grabs hold of you the way you’re hoping it will. Perhaps the CIA stuff should have been kept more in the shadows, rather than becoming the central focus of the film. Once Byrd lets Barris know that there is a mole in their midst and his life is in danger, the film should kick up another notch, but it starts to feel like a half-baked John le Carre knock-off. Instead, it is at its most intriguing when we see Barris working in his true realm, that of televised spectacle.
Clooney’s father produced game shows, and Clooney spent much of his life backstage in TV studios watching them being filmed, so he knows their feel and rhythm. Much like Barris, Clooney seems to understand how inane these shows are, but also that their very inanity is their draw. One only has to watch a few moments of the latest season of American Idol to realize that The Gong Show’s underlying concept is still alive and drawing in millions of viewers. Even if Barris did kill 33 people as a CIA operative, the imprint he has left us with forever is that TV is at its guilty-pleasure best when it’s dredging the bottom.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick