Rated R - Running Time: 1:53 - Released 12/31/02

The title is not the only similarity between Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind and last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind. Both films are based on a true story about a famous genius who purports to have been secretly working for the CIA. The main difference is, John Nash finally admitted he was delusional. Chuck Barris, creator of numerous TV game shows of the ‘60s and ‘70s and author of the autobiography upon which this movie is based, will give no such admission, and so the producers of this film (of which he is one), its director, George Clooney (in his debut as such), and its screenwriter, fantasy-meister Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), would have us believe that in between tapings of The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show, Barris was learning how to kill a man with his bare hands and traveling to Europe to assassinate Communist agents. It’s not an easy pill to swallow given Barris’s clownish persona and his legendary ability to generate entertainment based on out-of-this-world material, but hey, it certainly makes for a fascinating show.

Part of the credit for this film’s success must obviously go to Clooney, who in his first time behind the camera uses interesting camera techniques, desaturated color filtering, and inventive editing to create an engagingly surrealistic backdrop on which Barris’s incredible story is rendered. But it’s mostly the work of Sam Rockwell (Galaxy Quest, The Green Mile) that makes this movie so fascinating. Those of us who remember Barris from TV will not be able to deny the accuracy with which Rockwell impersonates the wild, seemingly psychotic, attention-craving lunatic who danced around the studio with reckless abandon during episodes of The Gong Show—frankly, I always thought he was high on coke, but the film makes no such reference—but it is his depiction of Barris’s private side, as a tormented, confused, and needy individual that really grabs our empathy. It would be easy to portray the man as a silly showman with delusions of a James Bond double-lifestyle, but Rockwell’s portrayal gives him the depth required to show us that he was, and is, a real person, with all the strengths and weaknesses inherent in the human condition. His performance, coupled with Clooney’s wild yet credible presentation, accomplishes the goal of Kaufman’s screenplay: to make us not sure. To make us say, “Could Chuck Barris really have been a CIA assassin?” It’s a tall order—and they pull it off.

Beginning, as so many autobiographical movies do, near the end of the story, the film starts with a bearded, reclusive Barris (Rockwell), holed up in a seedy New York hotel in the early ‘80s, his days of fame seemingly behind him, contemplating how his life has spiraled into its present state. After a short visit from his devoted and long-suffering girlfriend Penny (Drew Barrymore), whom he never even lets in the door, Barris contemplates how, at some point, a man compares what he expected his life to be and what it has become, and realizes that it’s too late to change it. But perhaps, he decides, his salvation will be to write a memoir of his bizarre story, getting it all off his chest once and for all. And so, Confessions is born.

We are transported back to the early ‘50s, when Barris is simply another guy trying to make it with girls, who starts out by getting a job as a tour guide at NBC, writing the pop song “Pallisades Park” which became a big hit for Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon, and finally moving to ABC to work backstage at Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. This portion of the story (which seems to contain an inordinate number of shots featuring Rockwell’s naked, well-toned butt) illustrates how his frustration with romance evolved into his creation of The Dating Game, his disdain for matrimony into The Newlywed Game, and his desire to eliminate mediocrity into The Gong Show. In between his TV-related pursuits, we are privy to his first meeting with Penny, whose hippy-esque desire for an open relationship seems to fit the commitment-shy Barris to a tee, and to his association with the shadowy and mysterious Jim Byrd (director Clooney), who recruits him into the U.S. government’s plot to foil Communism. Two of his more notable CIA contacts are played by Rutger Hauer, whose regrets about his profession inspire Barris to similar introspection, and Julia Roberts, whose chillingly sexy character becomes Penny’s primary competition for his romantic attention. As these strangely interrelated stories are played out, Clooney lends credibility to the film’s central conceit by including interviews with real-life celebrities who were associated with the shows (people such as Dating Game host Jim Lange, Gong Show regular Jaye P. Morgan, and even Dick Clark), who admit their uncertainty about what Barris was doing when he would disappear for weeks at a time. The plot, as they say, thickens.

Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind is, like the Andy Kaufman story Man On The Moon, a wacky movie about a wacky person, a film whose details we are never really sure we are supposed to believe. But perhaps this uncertainty is what makes it so engaging. Not knowing whether we are being told the truth or duped into believing the impossible knocks us a little off-kilter, which is exactly what Barris is best at. His wordless appearance (as himself) at the end of the film seems to underscore that he’s still behind the story. Or maybe he’s just telling us he’s in on the joke. ****

Copyright 2003 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

Current | Archives | Oscars | About | E-Mail