Film Reviews: Wednesday, January 23, 2003
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind\r\nStarring Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore, and George Clooney. Directed by George Clooney. Written by Charlie Kaufman, based on Chuck Barris’ memoir. Rated R.\r\n

Spy game meets game show,as Chuck Barris’ dubious memoirs come to the screen.


A: “King Tut, Dean Martin, and Chuck Barris.” Q: “Name a mummy, a rummy, and a dummy.” — Johnny Carson as “Karnak the Magnificent” on The Tonight Show.

Chuck Barris spent the better part of the 1970s as Everything That’s Wrong With Television. When you can hold that position for as long as he did, you’ve probably done pretty well for yourself. Strangely enough, Barris wasn’t satisfied with his legacy as creator of The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game and host of The Gong Show. Thus, in 1981, he wrote Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, an autobiography that detailed not only his career as a tv producer but also his daring adventures as a CIA hit man, killing 33 people across Europe and Latin America to prevent the spread of Communism and protect the American way of life.

How true are his spy stories? Who knows? The bare facts of life around The Gong Show are surreal stuff anyway; tales of espionage on the side fit right in. Barris’ book is spiced with references to John Donne and Thomas Carlyle that reveal him as more than an ordinary lowbrow, so maybe he was a frustrated intellectual who felt some need to redeem his existence. It seems likely, however, that when he meets his maker, he’ll have to answer first for the reality tv shows that he spawned, rather than for anybody he might have made dead.

From the film version of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, you can tell that screenwriter Charlie Kaufman feels a great kinship with his subject. Much like Barris probably did in his book, Kaufman makes up crazy stories about actual people until it’s impossible to discern what’s real. The movie’s Barris (Sam Rockwell) is pretty close to the fictional Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation, an antisocial, sexually screwed-up guy who gives off a loser vibe no matter how much success he achieves. The same surreal sense of humor prevails here — one highlight is a romantic montage in which several people get killed, set to a bad Elvis impersonator’s croaking rendition of “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Yet Kaufman’s script is more satisfying than anything else he’s written, because Barris’ book provides him with an appropriate ending, something Kaufman has always had trouble coming up with.

First-time director George Clooney has learned assiduously from the major filmmakers he’s worked with. He has Steven Soderbergh’s unruffled sense of pacing, and his aptitude for morbid humor would impress David O. Russell or the Coen brothers. He knows how to stage a sight gag and create striking visuals (important, because Kaufman depends much more on visual humor here than usual). He also displays the same impeccable sense of comic timing that he has as an actor. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (Three Kings) does well following the director’s numerous visual strategies — a hit on a snowy German street looks like something out of Fargo, an impression that’s enhanced by the presence of a Nordic assassin played by Rutger Hauer.

The doubling up of actors confuses fiction and reality further, as we see a dorky Dating Game contestant (John Todd Anderson) turn up later as a KGB agent, and a psychotic CIA instructor (Robert John Burke) warning the contestants not to swear on television. Clooney favors extreme angles, jarring color schemes, and luridly nonrealistic lighting. Scenes between Barris and his girlfriend Penny (Drew Barrymore) play out on what is obviously a soundstage. It’s all part of an elaborate game inviting us to guess how much of the movie we’re supposed to take as real.

The lead performance is also part of the joke. The curly-haired, beetle-browed Rockwell has shown amazing range as a supporting actor, from a vicious child murderer in The Green Mile to a terrified Hollywood extra in Galaxy Quest. He has Barris’ on-air mannerisms down (hat pulled down over eyes, nervous laugh), and he’s simultaneously credible as an unlikely secret agent and a deluded minor celebrity. He’s also a sympathetic romantic lead opposite an affecting Barrymore. The two actors clicked as a couple in a far different film, Charlie’s Angels, and their scenes resonate with the love between a schmuck with commitment issues and a girl who waits desperately for him to get over them. Their relationship is strong enough dramatically that supporting actors Clooney (sandpaper-dry as Barris’ CIA handler) and Julia Roberts (chilly as one of his contacts) never threaten to overwhelm the leads.

Toward the end, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind takes an even darker turn as Barris’ showbiz career peters out while the spy plot comes to a bloody end. We see him write the final sentence of his autobiography, “I am damned to hell.” (That’s not in the book, by the way.) Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this blackly comic view of life in the dregs of the entertainment industry is how the various plot threads and the dangerous minds of its creators unite to create a single paranoid hallucination of such power.

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