...a one-note character study about an unhappy, insecure, delusional paranoiac, whose assassin gimmick wears thin almost before it gets started.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

While it shouldn't be necessary to keep asking the question, "Yes, but did this really happen?," one can't help but do so.

"Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" is the 2003 movie adaption of former game-show host Chuck Barris's autobiography, in which he makes the outlandish claim to have been a top-secret CIA assassin before and during the height of his TV career. The claim is at the heart of the story, and while believing or not believing doesn't stop us from having some small degree of fun with the picture, it's annoyingly in the back of our mind all along and tends to be a minor distraction.

Of course, Barris knows that most people won't take his claim seriously and that it's impossible to prove one way or the other, in any case. Obviously, the CIA isn't going to admit to training covert murderers, so it's Barris's word against anybody else's, which I suppose is what made the book into a minor cult hit. But a film works a little differently from a book. People are up there on the screen in flesh and blood. If the story and characters are fictitious, we try to suspend our disbelief and accept them. If the story and characters are factual, we find it easier to go along with them no matter how much license the filmmakers take for dramatic or humorous effect; i.e., "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" or "Fargo." In the case of "Confessions," though, the film never goes far enough in any one direction, so we're not sure how to respond to it.

"Confessions" never persuades us that its premise is anywhere near the truth, nor does it magnify the outrageousness of the contention into pure comedy. Consequently, the film is neither funny enough nor serious enough to win us over. Its black humor is so laid-back as to be practically nonexistent, its espionage thrills are equally missing, and its drama is simply oppressive. The result is a one-note character study about an unhappy, insecure, delusional paranoiac, whose assassin gimmick wears thin almost before it gets started.

The movie, like the character it portrays, is also schizophrenic, going in several directions at once, the first half so different from the second half in style and content, it's almost like watching two separate pictures. We get Barris's life from the time he arrives in Manhattan in 1955 looking for a job in the fledgling television industry until the writing of his autobiography some thirty years later (the book was originally published in 1982), but we see his life in wildly contrasting moods. This, I assume, is what first-time director George Clooney had in mind all along, having the film's odd storytelling technique mirror the oddity of the central character, but it's hard to be sure. The movie's first half is done up in curious, old-time, pastel-tinted postcard colors, wacky camera angles, and an often irreverent, satiric style. The second half is somber and serious, the colors and camera work conventional to a fault. Clooney is ambitious and talented, both flashy and orthodox, but where did he think his film was going by trying to do all things at once, and why did he think his audience would care when we got there?

The screenplay was written by Charlie Kaufman, who also did "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation," two more bizarre movies, so maybe that helps explain where this one came from. But in his other work, Kaufman does a better job than he does in "Confessions" to bring together the disparate elements of the script. When the film is over, the only things we know for sure about Barris are that he has a wonderfully creative mind, an insatiable appetite for sex, and a knack for zaniness. People who are interviewed and know him well agree that the whole assassin thing is a put-on; the question is why he would go to the trouble to concoct such an elaborate story except to get attention. Unless, that is, the man is indeed as psychotic as the movie makes him out to be, in which case he is more to be pitied than admired.

Sam Rockwell plays Barris, and although he captures the man's energy and neuroses, I wondered why there was never any attempt to show him age over the years. He looks exactly the same in 1982 as he did in 1955. Was this a subliminal tribute on the director's part to the man's vanity or some attempt to remind the viewer that life is all an illusion, anyway?

As we get to know Barris better, we see a man preoccupied with sex, and as he rises in the television industry, the worse he seems to sink into unhappiness and sexual obsession. He appears to bed virtually every woman he meets, yet he stays adamantly cynical of and away from marriage (ironic considering his creation of "The Newlywed Game"). His longtime girlfriend, Penny (Drew Barrymore), comes and goes through the years; while a sexually liberated person herself, even she is unable to adjust to Barris's continual infidelities and indiscretions.

Somewhere in the sixties, by which time Barris had created and produced such shows as "Hootenanny," "The Dating Game," and "The Newlywed Game," he says he was approached by the CIA to work for them as a trained assassin. He's hired by a government contact, Jim Byrd, as an "independent contract agent." Byrd is played by the actor-director, George Clooney, as a cool, calm, ultra-suave customer, but a character as shallow an enigma as everyone else in the picture. So, why does Barris go along with the deal and commit by his count some thirty-two murders? "Call it patriotism." Apparently, despite the success of his TV shows, Barris still thinks of himself as a loser and feels the killings are a way of redeeming and possibly liberating himself. Then, once he's in, he's told, "You don't play, you don't leave."

Still, why does Barris continue to feel like a loser after his "Gong Show" hits it big, not only making him a ton of money but with him as emcee helping him become internationally famous as well? As the movie explains it, Barris had a lousy childhood, a lousy sex life, a lousy time with relationships, and a lousy time with the press. Critics called him a barbarian whose shows were lowering the standards of television to the lowest common denominator. Barris's defenders say he was simply giving the masses what they wanted. Barris implies he found government-authorized murder a legitimate release from the pressures he was under. Maybe as Norman Bates says, there are times in everybody's life when we go a little mad.

Several bits in the movie's first hour are funny in a peculiar sort of way, like the problems Barris initially encounters with censorship on "The Dating Game" and later his crew calling him "hitman" when he has three or four hit shows on the air simultaneously. Meanwhile, he tells us he travels around the world killing folks.

I found the movie ultimately more depressing than entertaining, yet there's no denying a strange fascination to the whole setup, it's so bizarre. There's even an attempt to liven up the proceedings by importing Julia Roberts, of all people, and Rutger Hauer to do small roles as Barris's fellow spies. Nevertheless, their appearance, if anything, is just one more diversion in a film that never really persuades us to believe in it one way or the other. The movie, like Barris's life, starts by not being quite together and goes down from there.

"Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" is rated R for sex (but no nudity), violence (but surprisingly little blood), and profanity (lots of it).

The DVD transfer is probably as good as the original print, but since director Clooney goes through so many visual tonal changes in the picture, the overall video quality is all over the map. For the first half hour, it's downright ugly, the colors dark, smeared, emulating early television color, I suppose. The image quality of the last hour conforms more closely to what we would expect of a modern movie, cleanly rendered and reasonably well defined, with a natural color balance. The screen size measures a remarkably wide 2.17:1 anamorphic ratio, which is undoubtedly the best thing about it.

The audio is done up in Dolby Digital 5.1, but anything coming from more than the front speakers, and primarily from the center speaker, is rare. The front stereo spread is modest but adequate, since the film is mainly dialogue driven. Rear-channel surround is faint most of the time, with only occasional musical ambiance enhancement, some audience applause, and a few noises from birds and crickets. The transient response or attack time is good, however, with a strong impact on gunshots and slammed doors. Like the picture quality, the sound is adequate for the task at hand and no more. It cannot be blamed for not needing to do more than it does.

There are a couple of interesting bonuses among the DVD's standard assortment of goodies. An audio commentary with Clooney and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel helps somewhat to clarify questions a viewer might have about why the film was constructed the way it was. There are also eleven deleted scenes with optional commentary to help kill the time. A "Behind-the-Scenes" featurette contains a number of vignettes, mostly with Clooney again, divided into chapters and lasting twenty-two minutes total. Then, there are three Sam Rockwell screen tests; three "Gong Show" acts filmed expressly for the picture; a six-minute featurette on "The Real Chuck Barris"; a still gallery; a paper insert listing chapters and whatnot; and eighteen scene selections. English and French are the spoken language options, with English captions available for the hearing impaired.

Parting Shots:
Think about it: Would the CIA truly hire somebody so famous and recognizable as Chuck Barris to go around killing people, even if they did hire him well before he became as popular as he would eventually become? And could a man who was thought of so highly by so many of his friends in fact commit such despicable acts of murder? No, it's more likely the book and its conceit were ways for Barris to work out the frustrations in his life, the assassinations a metaphor for the depressed state of mind he must have been in for so many years, seeing no sympathy, no mercy or compassion in the outside world or in the show business world around him.

One can only guess what it's all supposed to mean, which is the problem with the movie. Not only does it provide no substantial insights into Barris's character, it provides no clues to any insights, which is regrettable. Instead, with its tongue taken from its cheek early on, the film presents a depressing story about the depressing life of a depressing man. In the last analysis, it's a depressing thought.


Film Value