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Cute, entertaining, and opaque, George Clooney’s directorial debut does everything it can with the most notoriously batted-around script in Hollywood. Charlie Kaufman’s adaptation of schlock-TV producer Chuck Barris’ demented memoirs showed leg to numerous directors; attracted A-list, B-list, and Who?-list stars; and generally behaved like the main attraction at a bachelor party before landing in Clooney’s lap with an eccentric lineup of names attached. And why not? In the arty boys-only camera club that Steven Soderbergh seems to have founded, Clooney is the star pupil, and the connection shows. The trouble with this vastly energetic and ultimately pointless biopic is Kaufman’s: At the end of the day, the most inventive scribe in the business hasn’t told us why any of this should matter.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind could have been directed not by Clooney but by the felonious hipster he played in Ocean’s Eleven. It’s unstoppably jaunty, with zippy intercutting, whiplash comic editing, and more dead-on perfect music than you’ll find in a 50-year retrospective of the works of Paul Thomas Anderson. As Barris, Sam Rockwell narrates his life story, a most uncommon version of the rise-fall-and-rise biopic trajectory, while the images onscreen crack wise in either support or opposition. “I only wanted to be loved!” he says, as flashbacks show the young Chuck enduring slaps, horrified escapes, and bar ejections in his less-than-gentlemanly pursuit of women. Later, he gives shallow justifications for the stages of his career: “I heard TV had a future, so I got a job at NBC”; “Girls like management, so I cheated my way in.” Barris is confessional but not truthful, and his notion of regret is a volatile, self-serving one; delusional vanity and self-lacerating rage make up the bulk of his personality. He was born to be a novelty—a zeitgeist-tapper who never aspired higher than the lowest common denominator.
But what an eye the man had: He invented the template for what we call reality TV by developing a dating game in which the subject was unable to judge the object on looks and called it The Dating Game. He elaborated on the concept with The Newlywed Game, airing the naughty byplay and subconscious smut of young marrieds’ “whoopee” lives. And he sank to his most impressive depths with The Gong Show, making heroes out of deluded no-talents long before Howard Stern and a new era cut the Fellini circus of celebrity judgment out of the mix.
Barris’ TV career is what he is best known for, and perhaps he worried that he’d end up eulogized as the Ed Wood of prime time. So he also gives us Love, most delightfully enfleshed by Drew Barrymore as the barnacle-loyal Penny, a free spirit who collects cultural trends as if they were colorful feathers and makes a more-or-less lifetime commitment of sexual freedom with a man who abhors commitment. Penny is a ravenous little rainbow, supportive and enthusiastic, glowing in her skirts and heels and flowing hippie blouses alike. (That said, I think it’s time for Barrymore to try on one of Julianne Moore’s parts, just to see if she can do it.) There’s the titular Mind, too: Barris is painted as some kind of nonpracticing intellectual who quotes Nabokov and Shakespeare and Thomas Carlyle to women whom he expects to be unable to place them.
And then there’s something else: suspense, maybe; drama; a pack of lies? Barris claims to have been recruited as a hit man by the CIA, and the film faithfully trudges along with him on international jobs, which he carries out in the guise of Dating Game-winner chaperone. (This is a real job. My dad’s girlfriend used to do it, and it’s true that she went to all kinds of miserable places, such as West Berlin and Honduras, more conducive to shivving Commies than getting a tan.)
Clooney plays the spy stuff straight, without the winks toward the subplot’s transparency that he employs in the film’s early scenes. These are entertaining sequences, but they say no more about Barris than he himself lets on, and Kaufman’s script doesn’t illuminate them. So Clooney amps up the fancy graphics, fading out the color until it’s so gorgeously grainy that red and green grapes appear to be black-and-white. As for Rockwell, he behaves like an honest man, cringing at unarmed combat training exercises and looking wet-eyed and befuddled at each new job offered by his controller (Clooney himself, in an iron-gray mustache that makes him look like Dennis Farina).
Confessions is beautiful to look at and pure joy to listen to. Clooney revels in the jokey oranges and greens of the early ’70s and the sight of the ’60s TV-studio beehive buzzing with Darrin Stephenses in their pegged trousers. Snappy jazz and icy lounge play virtually nonstop, shaking down the seriousness of Barris’ CIA training sessions and pumping up the frenzy of all those glittery prime-time dollar-grabs. Rockwell is extraordinary in this busy, shallow role—he doesn’t look much like Chuck Barris, but he inhabits his subject’s constantly distracted air and deep, numb funks with a total submergence of ego. Like many of today’s best actors, he can go from handsome to repellent with the twitch of an eyebrow—or in his case, those shifty, lascivious lips. He points his compact body toward the camera like a missile as the lower-middle-class Barris takes aim at a nation’s good taste.
But the showbiz autobiography that uses grandiose fantasy to fill in memory’s blanks doesn’t give a screenwriter much to grab onto. And Kaufman isn’t content with Barris’ Ed Wood-ness. He doesn’t have Tim Burton’s humble sense of proportion, so it isn’t the cheapness of Barris’ vision that attracts him, but the noble version that plays in the man’s head. The Barris depicted here knows he’s a flop and a novelty, but he doesn’t know why; he can’t even revel in it. For this reason, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is like a magnificently fancy Behind the Music episode, in which you get caught up in Tiffany’s struggle because the world onscreen revolves so completely around it. True, you get just one life to take yourself seriously, but for some, it’s best not to. CP