Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind marks the feature film directing debut of George Clooney. Instead of plunging into the Hollywood mainstream, however, Clooney chose this highly unusual project based on the "unauthorized autobiography" of TV game show producer/host Chuck Barris of The Gong Show fame. Barris led no ordinary life, if we're to believe his memoirs: he was also a CIA assassin who frequently plied his second trade while chaperoning couples from The Dating Game to far off destinations. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who penned Spike Jonze's utterly bizarre and enchanting Being John Malkovich, as well as Jonze's more recent (and no less impressive) Adaptation, has fashioned a script that attempts to make sense of this apparent schism in Barris' personality and reveals key background info that makes Barris' split occupation resume seem to be two related facades of one rather fractured and disturbed mind.

Clooney handles his directing debut with considerable skill, at least I think he does. It's had to say for sure. In some movies, the director's skills are front and center and it's upon his/her decisions that the movie works or doesn't work. However, in other projects, the screenplay (or the original story) takes precedence. And in other cases a movie really belongs to an actor or actress and the director ranks second or even third in importance. The true "author" (the auteur) can be difficult to define. And in the case of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Kaufman's contributions certainly outrank Clooney's. But Kaufman is almost certainly outranked by the actor in the lead role, for everything rides on this actor. Everything rides on him convincing us that he IS Chuck Barris. Everything rides on him convincing us that the goofy game show host who twisted hyperactively like a precocious eight-year-old and grinned nonstop could really be capable of aiming a gun at his intended mark's head and pulling the trigger. Everything rides on this actor. Do you believe he IS Chuck Barris?

Much of this movie's success simply relies upon casting. And I'm sure the lead role gave the filmmakers and casting agents fits. I suspect the role is uncastable. I suspect the story is unfilmable. But the filmmakers charged ahead, resting their confidence in Kaufman's fine script and the delicious unconventionality of the scenario. So the filmmakers cast their fate with Sam Rockwell, a noteworthy actor who had attracted some attention as a death row inmate named Wild Bill in The Green Mile and as a big-time thief named Jimmy Silk in Heist. He has experience playing psychotic criminals and he also has the ability to exude a boyish charm -- definitely a rare combination. So Rockwell got the call for Confessions (although the studio has such little confidence in their lead actor -- who is in virtually every scene in the movie -- that they give him fourth billing on the movie posters).

At times Rockwell comes close to capturing Barris, but Barris carried a genuinely unique persona that is difficult to duplicate. Rockwell gives it a valiant effort (would anyone have really been any better?), but there is a certain twinkle in Barris' eye, a certain inner flame that is a key component of his character and Rockwell can't get the sparkle. (Should we have really expected he would?) In its place Rockwell offers the smarmy grin of a used car salesman -- the kind of grin that when you see it you know to run like hell in the opposite direction. And he never conjures a convincing portrayal of Barris' metamorphosis into an assassin, although here the problem may be the script, which prefers to paint Barris as a hopelessly confused SOB who stumbles through life without ever really understanding his actions (and obsessed by sex in Portnoy's Complaint fashion). However, there is a key moment at the very end of the movie when the real Chuck Barris' face appears, weathered by age and hardened by self awareness -- and yes! That is the face of the man who could have done what is claimed in his memoirs. Yes! That is the face of the man who could be a comedian one minute and a killer the next. That is the look! But there is nothing in Rockwell's performance that leads toward this complexity. Nothing captures this awareness. All we get is a spaced out Howard Hughes' impersonation as Barris tilts toward insanity. And with this failure goes much of the movie's credibility.

To be fair, the movie argues that Barris' self-awareness doesn't happen until after his mental breakdown -- and that the process of writing his "unauthorized autobiography" was an act of self-preservation that allowed him to restore his own sanity. But in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, there isn't much distance between Barris' confusion and what the filmmakers give us as viewers to watch. And that's the movie's great weakness. It reveals a certain amount of laziness in Kaufman's script and Clooney's direction and an unwillingness to really dig into the character of Barris. Instead, they rely upon a key piece of Barris' background to provide a moment of epiphany. But too much hangs on this epiphany, and it comes off as fake -- the too-easy contrivance of an autobiographer or screenwriter.

Similarly, the other roles in the movie are miscast. Clooney has too much charisma for the relatively subdued role of Barris' CIA contact. Drew Barrymore is simply too comfortable playing Barris' girlfriend -- as if she were asked to simply play herself -- so her performance lacks the detail that comes from the creation of a real flesh-and-blood character. And while Barrymore's presence might be explained as type casting, Julia Roberts' presence might be explained as casting against type. She appears as a rival assassin who can be seductive but deadly. But Roberts seems to think she's acting in a screwball comedy.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind contains several witty scenes, such as an episode from The Dating Game where Matt Damon and Brad Pitt sit in as bachelors while the third bachelor, a nebbish who spouts sensitive-guy drivel, gets chosen for the date. (Significantly, in the aforementioned scene, Rockwell has little to do.) The movie also interweaves interviews with Gong Show members, such as Jaye P. Morgan and Gene Gene the Dancing Machine, as well as Jim Lange from The Dating Game, and their presence effectively helps to blur the line between truth and fiction. And the movie also contains effective vignettes, as in an early scene showing Barris' sexual isolation: he makes an ill-considered (and too bold) advance on a young lady in a movie theater, she slaps him, and the camera pulls back to reveal the solo Barris surrounded by other young couples blissfully necking away. In scenes such as this one, director Clooney shows a remarkable ability at handling sight gags. There is much to recommend in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, but the role of Chuck Barris remains a problem, and with this problem the movie fails.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Miramax
Movie Web site: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind



Photo credits: © 2002 Miramax Film Corp. All rights reserved.