“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” Reviews

 

 

There is a scene in "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" where Chuck Barris flashes back to his younger days, and tells us he's not crazy about the idea of marriage because he saw how his parents turned out. We see an image of two kinda drab-looking folks from the 1940s -- the dad sits on the couch, staring at the wall; mother is in the kitchen, and all she has to say is, "We need a new ice box."

The reflection makes its point, but should somehow be more. It doesn't have enough force as either comedy or drama. Moments like that click into focus why the movie is lacking in power. There's nothing wrong with it, exactly, and when stretches go right, they develop an impressive, invigorating energy. But something is missing. The film begins as a sharp warped comedy and ends with desperate reflections on the mess and guilt of a wasted life -- in the middle, it sits there, not quite as funny or sad as it should be.

Chuck Barris was bigger in America than over here -- he became famous in the 1960s as one of the contributors to the decline of society, inspiring the evolution of reality TV with shows like "The Dating Game" and "The Gong Show". In his autobiography, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind", Barris also claimed to have killed 33 people. He was an independent contractor for the CIA, the story went, and he wiped people out all over the world as a sideline to his travelling alongside game show contestants.

Outside of the book, Barris has no official line on whether his spy story is true. According to the Guardian, a CIA official has been quoted as saying, "We make it a practice not to say who is or isn't in the CIA. But in this case we'll make an exception. Chuck Barris is not." For the purposes of fiction, I suppose it matters little what the truth may be -- either this is a terrific tall tale about a guy who led an insane dual life, or it's about a guy insane enough to think up one.

The movie begins with the early life of Barris, zipping through his charmless childhood and teens, and putting in context the performance of Sam Rockwell, who gives us crass obnoxiousness with manic enthusiasm. Barris is a goof who clumsily works his way up the ladder in television, all the while desperate for girls, prone to barfights and never very happy. The early scenes are satirical about Barris as a loud, unwanted loser when trying to score personally and professionally, and a bemused one when asked to become a killer for hire. There are a lot of exaggerated low-angle shots of military training camps, where beefy generals with football coach voices shout instructions on the best ways to do away with commie scum. There is also the performance of George Clooney, who pops up now and again as the CIA contact, a disturbingly quiet guy who calmly drops bombshells about how much embarrassing trivia he has on Barris's past. Watching Rockwell raise his eyebrow, vulgarly complain and stagger through all this is a lot of fun.

It's seen in overexposed, highly colourful photography, and on the soundtrack are a lot of good old pop tunes, and the seamless mix of new scenes with archive footage from Barris game shows seems to have no boundaries -- Rockwell strides across the jumble of visual materials, and sometimes the backdrops are just illusions all together, and give way to match with other things. You'll see what I mean. "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" has been assuredly directed by Clooney, in his first job behind the camera, and he has assembled a fabulous cast, with famous actors cleverly used in tiny roles to make amusing little points. The brief appearances of Brad Pitt and Matt Damon get the biggest laugh, and in some of the key supporting roles are Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts, Rutger Hauer and Maggie Gyllenhall.

The movie feels like it's going to be great, and it carries on feeling that way for a long time, but takeoff just never happens. I think the problem may be that the comedy of the opening ends up drifting into sentimentality -- not the kind you want to laugh at, but more the sort that seems distant and hard to care about. Rockwell's voice-over starts out viciously self-deprecating, and it ends up seriously confessional without being profound. Basically, he starts to pour his heart out inventively and ends up merely moaning that he sucks. "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" announces itself as a movie with the capability to be sad and funny at the same time -- when it drifted into merely the sadness, I didn't get bored, but did find myself unstirred. We've already been told that Barris is a loser; the movie drops its sense of humour about that point, but doesn't find a way to make it especially moving, and creates a feeling of slowly running out of conviction.


COPYRIGHT© 2003 Ian Waldron-Mantgani

 

 

The concoction entertains from beginning to end, though the lessons of Barris’ life are as slippery as his facts.
For years “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” enjoyed the odd distinction of being the best script in Hollywood no one dared film.

As he gained confidence as a producer, George Clooney decided to rescue the script from development hell and direct it himself. As “Confessions” finally hits the screen, it’s difficult to see why other filmmakers found it so daunting.

Based on the “unauthorized autobiography” of former “Gong Show” host Chuck Barris, the film retains Barris’ outrageous claim that throughout his television career he moonlighted as a CIA assassin. Barris’ story may be out there, but the movie’s weirdness factor falls well below “Being John Malkovich” or “Adaptation,” two films also written by Charlie Kaufman.

After an opening that shows Barris (Sam Rockwell) in the throes of a mental breakdown in the early 1980s, “Confessions” follows a path similar to other show business biographies. From his first day as an NBC page in the 1950s, Barris dreams of becoming a television big shot.

He goes on to create some of the odder aspects of 1960s kitsch, writing the bubble-gum hit “Palisades Park” and dreaming up “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game” before bursting to fame in the 1970s as the host of his zaniest brainchild, “The Gong Show.”

This evidence tempts one to blame Barris for creating “reality” TV, but unlike today’s programmers Barris didn’t traffic in humiliation. Contestants on his game shows must have known what they were getting into. On “The Gong Show” performers had to try mightily (and many did) to come off as more ridiculous than Barris.

Clooney gives “Confessions” a faux-documentary appearance by interspersing interviews with Barris’ contemporaries and collaborators, Dick Clark, “Dating Show” host Jim Lange, frequent “Gong Show” judge Jaye P. Morgan and two of that show’s other regulars, Gene Gene the Dancing Machine and Murray “The Unknown Comic” Langston.

A second storyline develops, one that most likely springs from Barris’ fantasies. Just as Barris’ game shows gain success, CIA officer Byrd (Clooney) recruits him as a hit man. Using his duties as “Dating Game” chaperone as cover, Barris snuffs communist agents while accompanying winners on their trips abroad. In Helsinki mysterious spy Patricia (Julia Roberts) entrances Barris.

As one of Clooney’s “Ocean’s Eleven” co-stars, Roberts belongs to Clooney’s contemporary Rat Pack. Two others, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, make cameo appearances as hopeful “Dating Game” bachelors. Drew Barrymore, who plays Barris’ loyal girlfriend Penny, is the only major cast member who hasn’t worked with Clooney before (both appeared in Batman movies though).

Prior to the movie’s release Clooney said he didn’t attempt anything special as a director, he just wanted to usher Kaufman’s acclaimed script to the screen. But “Confessions” is not the work of a director who points the camera and watches as the actors say their lines and hit their marks.

“Confessions” comes from a stylish, fearless mind. Clooney’s confident execution echoes Spike Jonze’s subversive work on “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.” Jonze co-starred with Clooney in “Three Kings.”

Just as Barris warped the expectations of the celebrity autobiography, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” warps the expectations of the Hollywood biopic. The concoction entertains from beginning to end, though the lessons of Barris’ life are as slippery as his facts.

 

movie review by Jeffrey Westhoff, Northwest Herald (Crystal Lake, IL)