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Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

Reviewed By Collin Souter
Posted 01/26/03 16:51:52

"Clooney proves he has learned from the best."
5 stars (Awesome)

Here’s a good rule of thumb for a bio-pic: Even if the story had been made up, it would still make a great movie. True or not, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” is great entertainment. Most bio-pics go the safe cradle-to-the-grave route, but since the subject of “Confessions”—Gong Show host/creator Chuck Barris—still lives, it has no choice but to lead up to where he resides today. Since Barris essentially led two lives, the movie tells two stories, but fuses them ingeniously into a cohesive whole. Credit screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (“Adaptation”) and first-time director George Clooney for taking the bio-pic genre and breathing new life into it. “Confessions” is that rare bio-pic that knows how much depth exists in its subject.

His life makes for great storytelling. The movie sets us up for a gritty tale of sexual addiction, not unlike Paul Schrader’s “Auto Focus,” which told the story of another television icon, “Hogan’s Heroes”’ Bob Crane. With Sam Rockwell as Chuck Barris giving us a voice-over, the movie flashbacks from him standing naked in a room staring at the TV to everything that led him to that strange place. That may sound like a bio-pic cliché, and it is (maybe not the naked part), but the way in which his life has been executed for the big screen is anything but.

So, what’s with Barris anyway? He came to New York in the ‘50s searching for a job in television. He has ideas, but he fails at selling them. He also has a sex addiction, which causes him to be less focused. He gets into bar fights and fails to make a name for himself. This catches the eye of a CIA recruiter, Jim Byrd (Clooney). Byrd recruits Barris and trains him to be a killer on his time off from working in television. When the two lives meet, “Confessions” turns into one hilariously dark comedy.

Barris also has Penny (Drew Barrymore) to deal with, who is sort-of his girlfriend, although they both believe in seeing other people. She only knows his life as a game show creator, and once he sells his first idea, “The Dating Game,” the relationship between the two grows closer, yet more distant. She moves to San Francisco. He travels to Europe, escorting “Dating Game” winners, while carrying out assassinations for the CIA.

Is this true? Well, Barris seems to think so. He wrote of it in his autobiography published in 1982 and, as I said before, if it’s not, it still makes for great storytelling. Clooney and Kaufman, to their credit, treat it as such. “Confessions” never shift gears into trapping us into a whirlwind of mind games. It never has us scratching our heads thinking, “Is this real or not?” I have never read up on Chuck Barris, nor did I read up on this movie before seeing it. I knew very little walking in, just bits and pieces. I suspect many others will walk in the same way, and maybe the movie could have used a coda at the end telling us that what we have just seen may or may not have happened. If Barris claims it as truth but the CIA denies it, whom do we believe?

Like “Auto Focus,” the story behind “Confessions” when put into context seems rather timely. “Auto Focus” tapped into the rise of home video technology and how we have reduced it to just another outlet for pornography, as has happened with the Internet. Barris’ story, or rather his version of it, seems rife with conventional pop culture allusions. Barris may have been the founder of reality TV. What is “The Dating Game” but a tacky prototype of “The Bachelor” “The Bachelorette” or “Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire?” What is “The Gong Show” but a foreshadowing of “American Idol”? And isn’t it interesting how another man’s life—a man who may have written a better story for himself than one he actually lived—is the subject of a major Hollywood movie, the makers of which seem only interested in the stranger-than-fiction aspect? Is “Confessions” anything more than a glorified dramatization of “E! True Hollywood Story”?

I like to think so, actually, but who out there doesn’t find these shows ultimately fascinating and addictive? Clooney knows Barris’ story comes off as convoluted, which may have been why he chose a bigger-than-life noir approach to the CIA material. Clooney makes all the right choices as a director and has clearly learned from the best (The Coens, Steven Soderberg, David O. Russell). Everything in “Confessions” looks appropriately fake, but the sincerity behind the material is anything but. The movie’s most sublime moment occurs in a montage to the tune of Elvis’ “I Can’t Help Falling In Love,” in which Barris’ life story, when bared down to this bite-size chunk, is reduced to one of the most bizarre music videos you will ever see.

Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (“Three Kings”) gives “Confessions” two looks, one for each part of Barris’ life. Barris’ life as a game show creator/host has a beautiful pastel color scheme, giving us the feeling of an altered reality as well as the sheer tackiness of its time. Barris’ other life has a classic film noir look, everything hidden in shadows and occasionally with black and white backgrounds. Not too many movies can command your attention these days with their sheer visual finesse, but the fact that “Confessions” looks absolutely gorgeous and unique is merely icing on the cake.

Of course, it goes without saying that the performances are also key to the movie’s tone and approach. As Barris, the relatively unknown Sam Rockwell (the villain in “Charlie’s Angels”) is a perfect choice, not because of how he transcends all these layers behind Barris’ odd psyche, but because he is an unknown. Somehow, that makes it all seem less showy to me. Barrymore gives one of her best performances as the free-love flowing Penny. Julia Roberts also shows up in the movie in a supporting role as a CIA assassin working alongside Barris, but he doesn’t know whether or not to trust her. Roberts also keeps us guessing.

Peter Bogdonavich’s “The Cat’s Meow”—which told the story of a possible murder on board a yacht owned by William Randolph Hearst—failed because it did not inform the viewer that other versions of its story had been written. Its approach was too direct. “Confessions” succeeds because it has been approached as entertainment, and truly great, inspired entertainment at that. Because the movie ends with a laugh, it takes on the guise of self-lampoon. Barris may never have achieved greatness with his accomplishments, but he sure knew how to spin a good yarn when he wanted to. You can laugh and shake your head in disbelief, but one thing’s for certain: Clooney and Kaufman spin this yarn for all its worth, and in this day and age it’s worth quite a lot. If only Andy Kaufman received the same treatment with his bio-pic…

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