Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was overshadowed in hype, box office, and awards late last year by that other odd, Charlie Kaufman-scripted movie, Adaptation. And that’s a crime.
For while I enjoyed Adaptation very much — particularly its dexterity with intertextuality, its devolving plot, and the performances by Nicolas Cage and Chris Cooper — Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a superior work. It is more engaging, more challenging, and more stylish, and it packs an emotional wallop that makes Adaptation feel even more glib and cynical. (And, for the record, I liked Adaptation far more than the paper-thin Chicago, the heavy-handed The Hours, and the interminable The Two Towers.)
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is, quite simply, the best 2002 movie I’ve seen, beautifully written by Kaufman and confidently, playfully, but crisply directed by George Clooney, making his behind-the-camera debut and infusing his Steve Soderbergh sensibilities with humor and love. And it’s anchored by a phenomenal performance by Sam Rockwell as game-show-creator-slash-assassin Chuck Barris.
The premise of the movie (and the “unauthorized autobiography” on which it’s based) is that in between creating classic trash shows such as The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show — establishing himself as the first reality-TV programmer — Barris worked as an “independent contractor” for the CIA, killing more than 30 people.
The movie got good reviews, but nobody seemed to take it seriously. It was written off as an “entertainment,” and the main character’s claims were basically dismissed as “that wacky Chuck Barris.” Confessions was treated as inconsequential and light. (My local Best Buy even put it on the “comedy” shelf.)
I’m not suggesting that the audience should entertain the idea that Barris is telling the truth. The movie gives plenty of clues that the spy sequences are fantasy, particularly the intimate details (“strawberry dick”) of Barris’ life known by agency handler Jim Byrd, played by Clooney with pitch-perfect deadpan. Byrd is a product of Barris’ imagination, something reinforced by the striking similarity between Rockwell’s voiceover croak and Clooney’s voice.
But to what end? Why should anybody take this CIA plot seriously, if not literally?
Because it’s Barris’ way of coping. “I need something for my head,” he tells Byrd when asking for a new job. He’s Walter Mitty, except he fantasizes not to escape his boring life but because he’s an asshole.
The fantasies are Barris’ way of dealing with his extreme sensitivity to public criticism, for one thing. He’s accused of polluting the culture with his game shows, and his response is to imagine a world in which he can say, “Yeah, but I’ve done a lot worse. The Gong Show is nothing.” And it works the same way with his girlfriend (Drew Barrymore). Yeah, he disappears, and yeah, he fucks other women, but, “You know, I’ve killed people.” Instead of becoming a better person, or working on his self-esteem, he devises a way to increase his self-loathing, as a way of dealing with self-loathing.
In this way, the fantasy elements take on greater weight than in, say, A Beautiful Mind, in which the delusions are the product of brain chemistry. In Confessions of Dangerous Mind, Barris’ assassin alter ego is an essential element of his personality, psychology instead of biology.
This understanding of Barris elevates the movie out of the realm of traditional filmed biography. It makes sense of a heretofore elusive character, and as a result it’s the movie Nixon and Man on the Moon wanted to be.
It would be easy for a movie that’s so full of self-hatred to drown in it, but Confessions is filled with light touches that offset Barris’ apparent psychosis. Most obvious are the brisk re-creations of Barris at work on his shows, utterly happy and in his element. A pair of cameos is perfectly placed for comic effect. And the spy scenes are wickedly funny in their absurdity, trotting out and skewering all the genre’s tropes, yet also involving. Clooney and Kaufman don’t exactly play this plot straight, but they don’t play it strictly for laughs, either. As a result, you won’t believe the espionage represents any sort of physical reality, but you’ll still care how it comes out.
I expected that lightness of tone, though. The previews suggested a highly stylized, fun Kaufman picture à la Adaptation. I wasn’t prepared for how wrapped up I got in both major plot strands, or how creepy and devastating the hallucinatory Gong Show episode and wedding were, or how affecting the entire movie was. I got chills three or four times near the end.
Clooney’s directing debut is astonishing for its maturity, even if his style draws heavily from Soderbergh’s. Confessions is elegantly, strikingly framed, and the picture is nearly always de-saturated, drained of color. The effect is to create a haze over everything, contributing a dream-like quality.
Little flourishes also suggest the former ER hunk should get behind the camera more frequently. There’s the overhead shot of a bleeding Byrd on a diving board. A split screen whose barrier is casually violated. An interview with The Unknown Comic — wearing his famous paper bag — that pays off later in the movie when Barris gets scared. (Of course a paranoid person is going to think that that’s the guy who’s going to kill him.) Aunt Rosemary Clooney gets name-dropped early and a song over the end credits.
And then there are the throwaway human moments. A close-up of Gene Gene the Dancing Machine that’s followed by a wider shot, showing him with prosthetic legs (presumably because his limbs had to be amputated because of diabetes). And, ultimately, a shot of the real Barris, who almost seems naked after all that we’ve seen.
I wouldn’t say Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is an important movie, but it’s not nearly as frivolous as it seemed. It has a surprising depth, and it’s a lot of fun, too. When was the last time you could string those two sentences together?