Many years ago, "The Gong Show" creator and host Chuck Barris wrote an autobiography called "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" in which he claimed to have been a CIA operative who killed 33 people. Hardly anyone bought the book, although the press did show some interest, especially in the outrageous claim. Barris hasn't really been heard from in years, yet his story has been strangely resurrected for the big screen by perhaps the only writer capable of doing it: Charlie Kaufman, the celebrated scribe of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation fame. (Funny how Kaufman had no apparent problem adapting this book, huh?)
There are two important women in Barris's life. One is Penny (Drew Barrymore), a free spirit who is different from all the rest in that she genuinely "gets" his off-kilter personality. Although his feelings for her are real, Barris is constantly cheating on Penny. The other significant woman is Patricia (Julia Roberts), a sultry secret agent whose path he keeps crossing. The fact that she is mysterious only adds to her appeal.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind follows Barris as he lives a double life, creating wacky TV shows like "The Newlywed Game" and "The Gong Show" by day, carrying out contract killings by night. Interspersed throughout the film are interview clips with former associates such as Jaye P. Morgan, Gene Gene the Dancing Machine, and Dick Clark - all of whom offer viewpoints on Barris and his assertions.
My reaction to the movie was kind of split. I was really anticipating it, but it turned out to be something different than I expected. I kind of assumed that the film would document the creation of the TV shows, with the government operative angle taking a supporting role. In actuality, it's exactly the opposite. Most of the movie is dedicated to Barris's alleged secret agent life.
The problem is that the assertion that this guy who created some of the most juvenile television programs of the 60's and 70's could also be a ruthless assassin is - as far as I'm concerned - pure bull. It's kind of amazing that, with this film's release, so many reporters are asking Barris if he really was an operative. To me, it seems clear that this is the product of not a dangerous mind, but an insecure one. It's no secret that the scorn heaped upon his creations was a hurtful to Chuck Barris. (He has openly admitted this in interviews.) So he made up a more colorful story for himself.
I had some trouble really getting into Confessions of a Dangerous Mind because of my inability to buy into the central conceit, even though it is kind of humorous on a surface level. This is not the fault of Kaufman, Clooney, or any of the actors; it's a fundamental flaw in Barris's idea. By placing himself in the middle of this lie, it is impossible to get to know the man. Rockwell certainly brings an aura to the "character" of Chuck Barris, yet there's no obvious motivation for him to join the CIA. Byrd keeps making reference to the fact that he "fits the profile" but what is the profile? We never grasp who this guy is, or what makes him tick, or what possesses him to carry out the government job. Some of the assassin scenes get crushed under the weight of that. Mostly what we take away is kind of vague. Several other characters refer to Barris as an "asshole." That's about all I took away; he remains an enigma.
That said, I did like the movie. It's technically well made. All the performances are solid, and Rockwell does a fantastic job of capturing Barris's on-air persona without resorting to mere caricature. Clooney's direction is solid and inventive, while Kaufman's script is intelligent and clever. The cinematography is very bold, often employing a watercolory tint that adds an appropriate mystique to the film. On every technical level, I admired Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and I was entertained by it as well. The recreations of Barris's shows are especially amusing and there are some genuinely big laughs. (Keep an eye out for two major stars doing silent cameos in the "Dating Game" segment.)
Although the film is certainly worth recommending, it never really sucked me in the way I had hoped. Chuck Barris - for better or worse - was a TV pioneer, inventing a whole theater of humiliation that still influences programs today. In telling his own story, he has minimized himself. He comes off as a guy so embarrassed by his own career that he felt the need to fabricate something more dramatic to compensate. What he fabricated just doesn't ring true, doesn't enlighten us about this so-called "dangerous" mind. Kaufman, Clooney, and company have interpreted Barris's story beautifully, but it was a flawed story to begin with.
( out of four)
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is rated R for language, sexual content and violence. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes.
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