Confessions of a Dangerous Mind tells the story of the real-life man who pioneered reality television. Curiously, this isn't a point the film actually makes; it begins in the 1950s and wraps in the early '80s, way before willful humiliation was a cultural force on television. This man's importance is more something you just come to recognize. The thing is, this man, a middle-rung television producer who figured a way to smelt people's desire for attention into pop culture gold, knew in the back of his mind that he would not be remembered well. Indeed, in the film, before his final nervous breakdown, this rabbit-toothed hustler with a sly smile, says: “I dispose of people, and I am disposable.”
Few words summarize a life as succinctly as those spoken about Chuck Barris by Chuck Barris. Of course, not everyone's life is worth a major feature film, you're thinking. This is true. Barris is not Gandhi, and he isn't Malcolm X; heck, he's still alive. Barris is a D-list celebrity, if that, but there is drama in failure, naturally. He also fits nicely into an emerging sub-genre of film: the marginal-figure story. These include Ed Wood, the Andy Kaufman movie, Man on the Moon, and the recent Bob Crane picture, Auto Focus. Indeed, it says much about the fears and psychology of some very talented filmmakers that the slow-motion-celebrity-train-crash would be so in vogue.
George Clooney made Confessions. It's his directorial debut, and it proves he could become a talented filmmaker if he would just simplify his approach. Nutso and ambitious, chaotic and overdone, the movie plays like the more-fun-to-hang-around-with evil twin of A Beautiful Mind. That Oscar favorite from Ron Howard was about a real-life Nobel Prize winner who suffered from delusions he had been sought out by the U.S. government to help with classified information. This pop culture explosion is about the sleazy man who gave us The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game, and finally stepped in front of the camera as the host of that legendary '70s cringe-a-thon, The Gong Show. His career was based on his cynical guess that “any American would sell out their spouse for a refrigerator/freezer.”
But oh, did you also know that the entire time he was a successful television producer and personality, Barris was secretly employed by the CIA to operate as an assassin? That he “disposed of” more than 30 targets? Did you know he used those exotic trips on The Dating Game as a cover for his operations? My guess is neither did anyone else. Barris claimed all this in his 20-year-old autobiography, and the book (same title as the film) has become a cult favorite. Shrewdly, Clooney and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation) made a movie that is one giant raised eyebrow. They blow past the details of his life and get right to the crazy stuff.
Sam Rockwell plays Barris; the young actor has an uncanny resemblance, and he gives Barris a set of swindler's eyes, always looking sidelong. We first see him standing naked in a hotel room, in the midst of his latest breakdown, leaving the filmmakers a convenient out: We always know what we're watching could be imagined. But they don't treat the hit-man claim as the pathetic attention-grabbing of a desperate man.
They embrace it like a bountiful tall tale, with the energy and opportunism of Barnum and Bailey, following his recruitment (by a shadowy agent played by Clooney himself) and his assignments and rivalries, even tossing in excerpts of real interviews with Dick Clark and Barris himself.
Their recreations of '70s game show sets are especially good; Toledoans will want to pay attention to one vintage clip of the real Gong Show that features Jamie Farr having a good time with his gong duties.
Julia Roberts shows up, too, and chews scenery as a seductive fellow agent. Drew Barrymore plays Barris' true love, the patient Penny. I used to think Barrymore was a terrible actress, but she is so disarming here, all sincere smiles and warm giggles, that I'm now more inclined to think she is simply not good at manufacturing false emotion. (There is a difference.)
Clooney's movie never moves smoothly from poignant to droll, and you have the tentative feeling that the joke is never really over, or someone got wrapped up in running around and lost his train of thought.
What are we left to think of Barris? I haven't a clue. He's so self-involved, such a jerk, it's hard to even care if he was CIA or not. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is sloppy and always a little opaque, a mixed bag at best, but its final irony is right on the money: Barris, above all else, was a freak show himself, a man who made his name exploiting others; he's now having his story told by a film industry that believes anybody with a crackpot act deserves a spotlight.