After having my leg pulled so many times in the course of watching "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" I suspect I'm at least three inches taller. The film is based on the already dubious life of game show creator Chuck Barris. The source is his 1981 autobiography in which Barris claims to have been a CIA assassin who used his high profile TV career as cover. The script was written by Charlie Kaufman, he of "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation" fame, a man never accused of literal mindedness. And the movie was directed by actor George Clooney, who is known in Hollywood as quite the practical joker. So throwing caution to the wind, I sat back and waited for the wacky funhouse ride to begin.
Two hours later the screen fills with the grizzled face of the real Chuck Barris, looking old and haunted by the life Sam Rockwell had just portrayed. Shot in moody black and white without a trace of irony, it confirmed my growing fear that the filmmakers wanted us to take this movie at face value. They were determined to sell "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind." I just wasn't buying any of it.
Rockwell has stolen a few scenes in his day, playing disturbed characters for both suspense and laughs. Still, I'm not sure he ever figured out how to play Barris, and for that matter, neither did Clooney and Kaufman. Barris was a man of limited genius and stubborn ambition whose achievement was creating The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show. If that's the upside of your lead character, how do you portray the downside? Rockwell's Barris has loser stamped on his forehead from the beginning and success only fuels his insecurity. He's not quite charming enough to qualify as a loveable loser either, and the patient loyalty of his girlfriend, played by Drew Barrymore, is perplexing. But not as perplexing as what a CIA man, played by Clooney, could possibly see in Barris that makes him recruit the indiscreet TV producer to be an international assassin. Of course it all makes sense if it's a lie, perpetrated by a man who felt both guilty and unappreciated. Yet the film keeps on chugging in it's linear fashion, never daring to suggest where we might have veered from biopic to psycho drama.
In one scene, Barris is undergoing CIA training while his voice-over explains that real covert operations are nothing like most people's glamorous fantasies of secret agent life. Yet a few scenes later he's slipping into a smoky bar in Eastern Europe where he exchanges passwords with a soft-lit Julia Roberts, with whom he will later have sex on a table before the two betray each other by slipping mickeys into each other's drink. Chuck Barris can be excused for trying to play it both ways. But Clooney and Kaufman don't do themselves any favors by sticking to his story. First time director Clooney is best when being the practical joker, as in a period-perfect scene from the Dating Game in which nerdy Bachelor #2 is flanked by Brad Pitt and Matt Damon in cameos as Bachelors 1 and 3. But most of the time "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" is a wacky film without being a very funny film. And if it was a cautionary tale after all, the only lesson I could take from it is....never trust a game show host.
© 2003 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 1/03
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
U.S. - 2002