CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND
Director: George Clooney
Cast: Sam Rockwell, George Clooney, Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts, Rutger Hauer
MPAA Rating: (for language, sexual content and violence)
Running Time: 1:53
Release Date: 12/31/02 (limited); 1/24/03 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik
Is this for real? Confessions of a Dangerous Mind presents the rumored double life of infamous television producer and "Gong Show" host Chuck Barris. The movie is based on Barris’ own novel of the same name (with the clever subtitle An Unauthorized Autobiography), in which he dances with the idea that his chaperoning duties for his "The Dating Game" were merely covers for him to assassinate threats to the US overseas. No one knows if it’s fact or fiction (except Barris himself), but whatever the reality may be, both possibilities have sensible circumstantial evidence and intriguing repercussions. If it’s true and Barris was a CIA hitman, then he has put himself on the line and certainly has lived a conflicted life. Conveniently, though, there’s no one around who can confirm or deny Barris’ role in the CIA by the end of his story, and he has made a career making fools out of people and institutions (as he admits throughout the movie). So the real question then is—if it is all a lie—what kind of person would make up a story like this? Based on what we learn from Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Barris certainly makes a good candidate.
The movie begins in 1981 as Barris (Sam Rockwell) sits around a hotel room naked, watches television, and ponders over his life. He has no time for anything or anyone else, even a concerned friend named Penny (Drew Barrymore), who comes to visit him in his time of need. Barris recalls his first experience with a girl at a young age, when he convinced her that a certain part of his body tasted like strawberries. His experiences with women from then on out were never successful; we see a movie theater of kids making out as Chuck’s date pushes him away. Then he finds a job as a page at NBC, discovers that you need only seem successful to court some women, and begins to develop some ideas for TV shows. Eventually, Chuck gets a job on "American Bandstand" and finalizes an idea for a game show called "The Dating Game." At first, it’s rejected, although later, the heads at ABC will change their minds. It’s during this time that Barris proposes he was first approached by Jim Byrd (George Clooney), who tells Chuck that he fits a profile and offers him training to become a CIA operative.
The movie is the directorial debut of George Clooney, who shows some solid promise in the role, although he seems to have pulled out all the stops for his first time out. He seems to be trying to distinguish the movie’s look and composition to get attention. The cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel is decidedly bleached-out, and Clooney implements some innovative staging and disorientating camera angles and mise en scène. In one scene, Chuck has a conversation over the phone with a television executive, and as Chuck moves through his apartment, the wall disappears to reveal the man at the other end of the line out of focus in the background. There’s another scene in which we follow Chuck’s day in and out as an NBC page in one take, with actors moving in and out of the frame to establish time passage. In one moment, "The Gong Show" is revealed to Chuck as he listens to a bad audition. The distinctiveness fits Barris’ personality and Clooney has a particularly strong control over the visual elements of his film, but I wonder if it’s too much for its own sake.
Even with complete control over the story, Clooney would have to deal with an uneven script. Surprisingly enough, the screenplay was written by Charlie Kaufman, whose past work on Being John Malkovich and Adaptation could be called brilliantly uneven, but here it’s just plain old uneven. For all its character-driven touches, the majority of the movie plays out too much like a typical biopic with episodic scenes highlighting the major events of the subject’s life and occasionally touching upon glimpses into the man’s psyche. The movie does really get across how Barris’ ideas come from his cynical view of society and humanity (mostly because he flat-out says it). For Barris, "The Newlywed Game" was an excuse to uncover how people would “sell out” for the chance to win a refrigerator, and "The Gong Show" played to the concept that people would make asses of themselves just to appear on television (how true that is nowadays). The scenes of Chuck on assignment are perhaps the movie’s best, which is odd considering that those are the ones that probably never happened. As his personal life and professional double life spiral downward, the movie begins to focus on Barris’ inner-conflict. It’s a nice change of pace although unfortunately not as effective as it could have been had we learned more about him beforehand.
For all its urban legend intrigue and all the fun the actors are obviously having, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is too succinct and too straightforward for its enigmatic subject. I keep going back to my initial question, though, and I think I’m pretty convinced about the answer. At one point, a fellow spy played by Julia Roberts makes a perceptive point: "Insane asylums are filled with people who think they’re Jesus or Satan. Very few have delusions of being a guy down the block who works for an insurance company." Or of being a television producer, for that matter.
Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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