I loved Chuck Barris’ 1984 book, I loved Charlie Kaufman’s script when I got my hands on a copy a couple of years ago, so I’m not sure why I sit here with such ambivalent feelings about the movie Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Unlike most of the people surrounding me in the theater, I knew what I was in for: a mock-serious “unauthorized autobiography” purporting to tell the true story of game-show guru Barris, who, according to his book and the movie, was carrying out “directives” (assassinations) for the CIA when not busy producing or hosting The Dating Game or The Gong Show. But the absurdist juice of the book and script seems squeezed out of the movie. What’s left is loneliness and despair: The film is unexpectedly and unavoidably depressing.
Barris’ fanciful account of his adventures with the CIA may have been his metaphor for never being known for what he really was. A novelist and songwriter, Barris was pilloried left and right for leading America into new depths of depravity with The Gong Show. Barris converted his feelings of being misunderstood — the dissonance between his public persona and his private life — into a tall tale of leading a double life. In the movie, Chuck (Sam Rockwell) doesn’t seem secretly refined or learned, just a callow hustler who stumbles into the CIA as heedlessly as he stumbles into television. Rockwell, a fine character actor, is given only the externals to play, and his dead-sounding narration doesn’t help; reading the book, I heard Barris telling his story in an irrepressible, get-a-load-of-this tone.
George Clooney famously took on the directing chores himself (after several A-list directors couldn’t get the project off the ground) because he wanted Kaufman’s script delivered without corruption or softening. He has overcorrected and made a glum, almost listless movie, with frequently bleached or tinted photography (by Newton Thomas Sigel) that makes one wish for a normal-looking film. Clooney plays Chuck’s CIA contact, the dour Jim Byrd, and there were times I thought Jim Byrd had directed the movie. Clooney does a somber and solid job behind the camera and in front of it, but this film needed a live wire and wicked wit — someone like Brian De Palma would’ve done nicely — and Clooney seems more interested in reproducing the art films of the ’70s, particularly the punishing, guilt-ridden cinema of Paul Schrader.
The doubling in Chuck’s life goes beyond his careers: Romantically — or, let’s say, sexually — he has an angel (Drew Barrymore as the sweet, carefree Penny) and a devil (Julia Roberts as the shadowy agent Patricia). Both women are available for sack time with Chuck, and both make demands on him (Penny wants marriage, Patricia wants loyalty). That’s about all there is to their characters; though played (respectively) appealingly and seductively by Barrymore and Roberts, the women in what’s being called a hip black comedy hark back to the movie stereotypes of fifty years ago. Only Maggie Gyllenhaal, as a Chuck conquest who never loses her expression of boredom even when he’s on top of her, rubs against the grain of the film’s benign neglect of women, and (guess what?) she’s not around for long.
I can’t say I “liked” Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, but I want to see it again; it may be the kind of difficult movie that improves for me upon repeat viewings. It speaks of joylessness and self-loathing, qualities that Barris himself, in his little-seen 1980 The Gong Show Movie, used as shtick in his autobiographical account of a put-upon schmuck who runs an out-of-control TV show. Confessions just adds assassination to the mix (in rather clumsily staged scenes) and invites us to stare into the abyss of a lonely man who can’t do anything noble or worthy no matter how hard he tries. This bleak tragedy is being sold as a comedy, and I hope it won’t scare confused audiences away from Barris’ laugh-out-loud book. As a director, Clooney certainly knows how to bum you out, and he may have a future helming chilly movies about sad, angry men. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind shouldn’t have been one of those movies.