'Tis the season for pillorying the TV stars of yesteryear. After Bob Crane got his comeuppance in Auto Focus, George Clooney takes the director's chair for the first time to bring us Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the "unauthorized autobiography" of Chuck Barris, the man responsible for some of the most enduring and trashiest TV shows ever, including The Dating Game and The Gong Show.
Sam Rockwell (best known for show-stealing turns in Charlie's Angels and Galaxy Quest) makes for an engaging and wildly funny doppelganger for Barris, owning the character so completely it's hard to tell where the source material ends and Rockwell's interpretation picks up. With Barris appearing in almost every scene, the film takes us down his road from TV-producer wannabe to master of the 1970s game show. Oh, and not to mention, a stint as a freelance assassin for the CIA.
You read that right. The way the movie tells it, a broke Barris was approached by a secret agent (Clooney) before he made it in Hollywood. He bumped off a few Latin American thugs for spending money, but continued the work even after he'd hit it big with The Dating Game, just for the rush. Hell, Barris even had the perfect cover by serving as a chaperone on some of the winners' dates in, oh, Helsinki... or Berlin.
We also see snippets of Barris's personal life, drawn from the more vulgar commentary in his book. Largely this consists of Barris's womanizing (shades of Auto Focus). When he isn't with long-term girlfriend Penny (Drew Barrymore in a disposable performance), he's shagging ABC staffers and even fellow spy operative Patricia (Julia Roberts, chewing the scenery).
It's a fun ride that sustains itself despite a rather thin premise, but unfortunately Clooney-as-director could use some reining in. Favoring first-year film school tricks like shooting in dark shadows, using oddball angles, bleaching the film of color, and careless editing, the movie comes off as more of a goofy home video project Clooney made in his spare time than a serious film.
That's not to say Clooney's little experiment isn't fun. It is, at least for its first hour or so, until Barris is reduced to a garden-variety, gibbering paranoiac. Using the oldest crutch in the screenwriting handbook, the man eventually sequesters himself in a dingy hotel room, which soon becomes cluttered with crap while Barris just stands there, staring at the TV, naked and unshaven. Why is it that all movie lunatics check into hotels and refuse to leave them? At this point, Manhattan must be out of rooms.
Frankly we've come to expect far better from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), and I have to say I'm stunned that he decided to take Barris's farfetched memoirs and play them straight, without irony. After all, which sounds like a better movie? Is it A) Game show producer lives secret life as assassin or B) Aging game show producer, disappointed that he hasn't had a hit show in decades, tries to reinvent himself as an erstwhile killer and faces off with those who don't believe him... and those who do. Get me rewrite!
Clooney offers a commentary track on the DVD along with his cinematographer, and various behind the scenes features, deleted scenes, screen tests, and movie-fied Gong Show outtakes round out the disc. A documentary (more grounded than Confessions) about the real Chuck Barris is also worth a look for those interested in the kooky man.
I confess: I like ketchup.