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Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

Reviewed By The Ultimate Dancing Machine
Posted 02/02/03 14:18:15

"Hit the gong"
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

John Denver was a hitman for the CIA. That was an urban legend in circulation back when the irrepressibly cheerful country boy who crooned “Rocky Mountain High” was still recording hit singles. The perverse wit of the rumor derived from the simple fact that Denver was the last man on Earth you’d suspect of being a gunman. I think that’s what GONG SHOW impresario Chuck Barris had in mind when he wrote his “unauthorized autobiography” CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND, originally published in 1982. All those years when Barris was producing sleazy, tacky TV shows, he was leading a double life—he claimed—as a CIA operative, knocking off enemies of the U.S. government. I don’t believe there’s an ounce of truth in this, but I admire Barris for fucking with our heads. It’s a brilliant joke. Of course, I can’t be certain that he really wasn’t pumping lead into people all over Europe, but even the title seems to imply otherwise: Chuck Barris may be dangerous—but only in his mind.

One of the unlikiest biopics to hit theatres in some years, CONFESSIONS offers Barris’ story at face value, with occasional winks at the audience. That’s the problem, I think: it takes a generally literal approach to material that needed another angle of attack.

All the time I watched this movie, I couldn’t quite grasp why I wasn’t liking it. Part of it was Clooney’s overbearing directorial style—the film is so full of cute match cuts, unnecessary close-ups, and similar business that you want to open up a window for fresh air. It’s just so needlessly busy, as if Clooney were applying for film school and wanted to show off his comprehensive knowledge of movie grammar. On occasion it becomes quite literally disorienting—are we getting a close-up of Rockwell’s nose because his nasal hairs carry symbolic significance? Or is that simply his best feature?

But the big problem is that CONFESSIONS basically plays it straight, too straight. Clooney frames the movie as a documentary, with “interview” segments (less clever, in this age of nonstop “Behind the Music” specials, than he probably thought). To be sure, he does have a sense of the comic possibilities of the material—for example, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon show up for a hilarious visual joke—but the comedy seems incidental.

The source material, Barris’ gonzo autobiography, is essentially a huge double-take. The effectiveness of the joke (and, yes, I think it is a joke) depends on the fact that Barris’ public image is completely at odds with his alleged spy-game escapades. It presents an alternate version of a story we thought we already knew. In this film, we needed to have to have a solid impression of the game show-Barris—humble, neurotic Jewish boy made good by exploiting mankind’s foibles—before we could appreciate the twist of hitman-Barris. But here there’s no twist. It’s all presented chronologically. Young Barris climbs the Hollywood ladder, and, oh yeah, he becomes a hitman. The comic contrast between his two lives isn’t emphasized nearly enough. For the material to make proper sense, it had to have been treated as a “shocking” faux expose, i.e., this is what you thought Barris was, and this is what he—allegedly—really is.

The spy sequences are often muddled. It’s not always clear exactly who is supposed to be doing what to whom. Not that it matters much, of course; if anything, there’s too much bang-bang stuff. Acting is fine. Rockwell is rather colorless as the assassin/producer, but that’s only fitting. Drew Barrymore is very good as his on-again, off-again girlfriend.

Late in the film, as Rockwell wallowed in angsty gloom over his failing relationship with his girlfriend, I finally realized where I’d seen this before: It’s almost the same plot, minus the hitman angle, as the notorious 1980 bomb THE GONG SHOW MOVIE. Hell, they even recycled one of the Unknown Comic’s jokes from that movie (I won’t spoil it, but it involves toilet paper and a shower curtain). Two decades later, we have another movie in theatres about Chuck Barris’ midlife crisis, and the material has not improved much with age. If you peel away CONFESSIONS’ spy bullshit, you could conceivably read it as an aging man’s wistful goodbye to both the glamorous Hollywood life he never really had and the James Bond-ish made-up life he perhaps wishes he had. That is, in fact, what the final scene hints at. But a lot of executives in Hollywood would kill for some of the credits on Barris’ resume, and the movie never satisfactorily explains why he’s so unhappy with his life and his career.

CONFESSIONS isn’t terrible, but it could have been so much more.

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