Besides being the directorial debut of actor George Clooney (“Solaris”), “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” is also written by Charlie Kaufman (“Adaptation”), the “it” writer of the decade. The screenplay is adapted from the “unauthorized” autobiography of Chuck Barris, a game show producer/creator/host responsible for such ’70s nonsense as “The Dating Game”, “The Newlyweds”, and “The Gong Show.”
Being that I am not a child of the ’70s, and my first memory of TV came into existence somewhere around the mid ’80s, I have no idea who Chuck Barris is, or what he’s done beyond what the film tells me. According to the movie and Barris’ own autobiography, Chuck Barris was generally lambasted for his shows, and one news article referred to him as adding to the “decline of Western civilization.” All of this infamy is rather disconcerting to Barris, who is an insecure man given to flights of fantasy and a gnawing need for acceptance and fame.
In his book “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”, Barris claims that while he was creating game shows and hosting them, he was also an assassin for the CIA. Recruited after a bar fight (that he lost) by the mysterious Jim Byrd (George Clooney), Barris is sent to CIA killing school, and then overseas for various, romanticized hits. This is all made possible by Byrd, who hatches a clever plan to use Barris’ game shows as cover for Barris’ international travels. And if you believe all that, I got swampland in Florida to sell ya.
“Confessions” is a stylish film about an insecure man who makes up things to justify his existence. According to the film (and supposedly the book?) Barris’ mother had wanted a girl and not a boy, so she dressed young Barris in girls’ clothes. This feeling of being unwanted continued with Barris through adolescence, until he discovered he could make up for the hole in his soul with fame and fortune. Drew Barrymore (“The Wedding Singer”) co-stars as Penny, the love of Barris’ life, who he cheats on constantly.
The screenplay by Charlie Kaufman has nothing to do with real-life, but that’s no surprise. The movie shifts back and forth through time, and oddball scenes pop up every now and then to remind us that we’re watching a Kaufman movie. Kaufman, I’ve come to believe, has attention deficit disorder, or something close. His movies are so incoherent and lacking in narrative structure that it’s impossible for me to believe the man doesn’t suffer from some sort of inability to keep one straight thought for any length of time. His screenplay for “Confessions” is peppy and perky, only to become suddenly dark and moody, and back to peppy and perky again. In a word, it’s all standard Kaufman stuff.
In his directorial debut, George Clooney seems determined to show us he’s learned more than just a little from his frequent collaborations with directors like Steven Soderbergh (“Out of Sight”) and others. The fact is, “Confessions” feels like a Soderbergh movie. The look is bleached out in spots and sometimes the lights are so harsh they threaten to devour the scene entirely. It’s all done for style and pizzazz, and with the help of experienced cinematographer Newton Thomas Siegel (“X-men”), Clooney achieves much more than what another first-time director might have. It goes without saying that George Clooney should thank whatever God he believes in that someone up there is looking out for him, because he’s blessed with a tremendous crew, led by the veteran Siegel.
As Chuck Barris, Sam Rockwell (“Heist”) flexes a lot of naked buttcheeks as well as acting chops. He’s great here, riding the roller coaster of emotions up and down and back and up and down all over again. Rockwell makes “Confessions”. Julia Roberts (“Pretty Woman”) co-stars as Patricia, a fellow CIA killer and Barris’ sex partner. It’s an odd role for her, and there’s a good bet her taking the role owed more to a favor she owed director Clooney than any real interest in the movie on her part. As the love interest, Drew Barrymore continues to convince me that she’s a throwaway actress. She neither adds all that much to the movie, but doesn’t really detract from it either. I guess that’s the privilege of being a named actress — being “right” for a role means showing up at the set.
“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” is neither all that insightful or very good. It’s flashy as hell, and Rockwell is fabulous in the lead. To say that Rockwell has come a long way from playing the comedy relief in “Galaxy Quest” is an understatement.
Clooney has now proven that he can direct, but now has to prove that he can tell an old-fashioned narrative film without all the flash. Look for something with substance, George.
George Clooney (director) / Chuck Barris (book), Charlie Kaufman (screenplay)
CAST: Sam Rockwell …. Chuck Barris
George Clooney …. Jim Byrd
Drew Barrymore …. Penny
Julia Roberts …. Patricia
Rutger Hauer …. Keeler
Maggie Gyllenhaal …. Debbie