“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” presents a terribly comic and always enjoyable chronicle of Chuck Barris’ ascension from a TV studio tour guide to game show guru. The omnipresent Charlie Kaufman (“Adaptation,” “Being John Malkovich”) has pieced the screenplay together from Barris’ autobiography. For those who grew up without cable, Barris produced a succession of hit shows from the ’60s — “The Dating Game,” “The Newlywed Show” and “The Gong Show.”
Newcomer-director George Clooney introduces the protagonist “Apocalypse Now”-style — self-exiled, unshaven and naked. This works for Francis Ford Coppola, whereas it leaves Clooney’s audience suspicious of Sam Rockwell, who is a ridiculous albeit sincere buffoon trying to mimic a great performance. But then, that mood of wondering about veracity does fit the story very well, in general — notorious television producer Chuck Barris claims to work as a CIA independent contract agent, also known as a hit man, during the Cold War era.
In 1981, Barris, his shows pulled off the networks, isolates himself in a squalid New York hotel. Barris assumes the cliched role of the inebriated, depressed writer looking to redeem himself of past inadequacies. By recording his “wasted life unflinchingly,” he hopes to warn others against assenting to murder, complicating one’s life unnecessarily, avoiding commitment to innocuous love, and profiting from the public’s lack of taste. But the movie does not commit to a specific thesis. If the audience wishes to come away with one, they must extract it themselves. Therein lies most of the pleasure of watching the movie, opinionating about it.
Barris likes to think that he brings “joy and laughter to millions of people.” Meanwhile the media critics, as well as a sharply perceptive siren type at the Playboy mansion, accuses Barris of polluting television with mindless entertainment, a sort of cross between the dirt that critics fire at Jerry Springer and reality shows. Although Barris has a foul history of deeds, especially including his 33 counts of murder, his character maintains a glow of likeability. Barris has spirit: he claps, he BSes, and he exposes other people in the act of BSing. He originates “The Newlywed Show” on the premise that “almost any American would sell out their spouse for a refrigerator, freezer or a lawnmower they can ride.” Ultimately, he humanizes the foul impression of himself imparted by the critics of his television career.
Sam Rockwell plays his first big-time role with amazing affability and vitality. Drew Barrymore as Penny, Chuck’s loyal girlfriend and hopeful wife, plays her regular, adorable bit. The other supporting actors, however, benefit the film only in attracting attention to the credits. George Clooney, as CIA agent Jim Byrd, should have lavished more of his directorial attention toward his own performance. Sometimes dead-pan just comes across as dead. Julia Roberts, playing Barris’ fellow spy, Patricia, manages to make femme fatale look weird. The half-second cameos by Brad Pitt and Matt Damon do more for the movie in terms of laughability, in a good respect, than either Clooney or Roberts manages in his stock parts.
Clooney as director indulges in many too many razzle-dazzle camera tricks: blue screens, split screens, zoom pan transitions, etc. But, this over-the-top bazaar of effects makes sense in the context of the story it tells. It reflects Barris’ often burlesque personality, and it reveals his worlds with perfect playfulness and ambiguity. It never commits to one interpretation of whether his assassin story holds as a true story. Or did Barris just make the preposterous confession to assassinating Reds in an effort to exoticize his low-life Hollywood reputation? Did Barris really escort the winning contestants of his “Dating Game” to West Berlin in order to make a hit? Seriously?