Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

dir. George Clooney

Opens Fri Jan 24 at various theaters.

Chuck Barris is a delusional freak. A liar. A purveyor of trash who, when he wasn't creating shows like The Dating Game and The Gong Show, created for himself a twisted reality. Said twist: Throughout his television producing career he was also a CIA hit man, using his celebrity as a front while whisking off to distant lands to snuff some nefarious enemy of Uncle Sam. Over 50 people have died courtesy of his hands--or so he claims--all while he brought hapless couples and talentless hacks to America's tubes. He slayed them with televised crap during the day, and he slayed them with a silenced forty-five at night, and if you don't believe him, he could really give a shit. This is his story, and he's sticking to it.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Barris' autobiography detailing the above tall tale, was first published (to only minor fanfare) in 1982--just two years after his last network hit, The Gong Show, left the air. It is the most audacious of autobiographies, filled with rampant self-loathing and somewhat inexplicable tales of sexual conquest, all bundled together under an umbrella of international intrigue and network TV history. In short: It's a brilliant work, blatantly dubious in its authenticity, but aggressively readable--so much so that despite whatever disbelief you feel while reading it, part of you hopes, wishes, Barris' claims were true.

The key to understanding Barris' desire to pen such an autobiography seems to lie in the aforementioned self-loathing. He is a man who rigorously hates himself; he hates his looks, his career (both factual and fictional), and his inability to find and maintain love. And these are elements perfectly suited for screenwriter Charlie Kaufman--who, via scripts like Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, routinely showcases his own personal hatred. And it is Kaufman who has written Confessions of a Dangerous Mind for the screen, creating--with first-time director George Clooney--a spectacularly whacked film bio.

Onscreen, Barris is played by Sam Rockwell, up to now a minor actor in such films as Galaxy Quest and Charlie's Angels. Short and stringy, with an absurd mop of hair, Rockwell perfectly captures the twitchy, embarrassed persona Barris displayed as the host of The Gong Show. Playing Barris from his 30s (when he first tried to work his way into network broadcasting) to his 50s (when he holed himself up in a New York hotel room following the shitcanning of The Gong Show and spent his days naked, shooting televisions), Rockwell brings a comical yet sad air to the cinematic figure. It is--to use a cliché--a breakout performance, skillfully framed by Clooney and his helpers.

Speaking of Clooney: Actors-turned-directors are notoriously shoddy, routinely awarded but rarely worthy. See Mel Gibson's Braveheart and Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves, two films driven by their directors' inflated egos--egos nearly matching their films' gigantism. Unlike Gibson and Costner, however, George Clooney eschews his own ego (and subsequent belief in a worthwhile cinematic vision) in directing Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and instead relies on the most important of skills for a filmmaker: theft. And not just theft, but thievery from the best: throughout Confessions, glimpses of directors Clooney has worked with can be noticed--from Steven Soderbergh's perfect handheld framing to the Coen brothers' smooth dolly shots to the color saturation and other tomfoolery of David O. Russell. Clooney has obviously been paying attention over the years, and that attention has paid off in his first effort. It appears he has talent behind the lens, even if that talent was spackled together from other sources--and even though Clooney himself has a part in the film (as Barris' CIA handler), the Return of the Killer Tomatoes veteran has been wise enough to sweep his own wattage aside as much as possible, allowing his own film to breathe (Gibson and Costner, please take note).

But, despite all this waxing of George Clooney's and Sam Rockwell's cars (and the supporting actors'; Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts, and the always great Rutger Hauer deserve heavy waxing themselves), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind belongs to one person and one person only: Chuck Barris. After a shameful career (in the eyes of critics and other pundits), the man whose vision presaged Elimidate, Blind Date, and all the other shit we all watch (always full of shame, but usually entertained)... well, he's finally getting his due. Chuck Barris is everywhere right now, and he should be. Perhaps not for his contributions over the years, but for the sheer lunacy he has shown in concocting his autobiography. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is audacious and ridiculous and completely fucked, both on the page and on celluloid, and for that Barris should be recognized for what has long been ignored: his undeniable genius.

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