Why George Clooney's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind Works As A Tragicomedy Despite Its Indulgent Flourishes

With the recent passing of Chuck Barris, Nathan Rabin looks back at George Clooney's stylized adaptation of Barris' pseudo-memoir.

by | April 18, 2017 | Comments

When Chuck Barris died at 87 last month, he was remembered differently by different people. For the masses that Barris entertained for decades before embracing life as a semi-recluse, he was “Chuckie Baby,” the seemingly stoned host of The Gong Show, a lovable goof whose hipster-beatnik antics conveyed just how little he cared about everything around him. On The Gong Show, everything was a lark, Barris’ genial presence most of all.

Show business professionals also knew Barris as the creator of not just The Gong Show but also such insanely lucrative, venerable game show institutions as The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game. These were profoundly bifurcated accomplishments: Barris created television shows that caught on with audiences like few shows before or since.  Yet these shows were eviscerated for not just being bad entertainment, but rather for lowering the level of discourse on television. That’s no mean feat, considering the level of discourse on television generally hovers between “rodeo at a state prison” and “three-year-old’s birthday party.”

However, to folks like me, Barris was the author of Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, a game-show memoir unlike any other. It was as much, if not more, about Barris’ claims to be a CIA assassin as it was about his real-life history as a reviled yet extraordinarily successful trash-culture maven. Like Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck during the making of I’m Still Here, Barris toyed extensively with the idea that Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind was real, and that during the heyday of The Dating Game he was out assassinating Communist agents when he wasn’t clowning around with Gene Gene the Dancing Machine or the Unknown Comic.

Confessions wasn’t real, but it became an object of intense cult fascination.

The idea that Confession Of A Dangerous Mind was real was absurd, of course, but it became an object of intense cult fascination. Barris wasn’t just some celebrity who traded on his fame and success to get his kooky idea for a quasi-tell-all published. He was a real writer. Confessions took its cues less from straight-faced memoirs by fellow game show mavens like Dick Clark or Merv Griffin than from the intense self-hatred and unrelenting sexual neurosis of Phillip Roth and the demented, surrealistic game-playing of Phillip Dick. The book was also presumably inspired by other ambitious authors not named Phillip.

Barris seems to have written Confessions primarily to amuse himself, but also to prove to the world that he was a bona fide self-loathing Jewish intellectual and not the cynical, calculating hack of the public imagination. The book particularly caught on with Hollywood because God knows there’s nothing show business people would rather read about than show business.

The film adaptation of Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind spent what felt like an eternity in development hell. Bryan Singer and Johnny Depp were initially on board as director and star, but the film ultimately ended up getting made on a relatively modest budget, with the wonderful Sam Rockwell in the lead as Chuckie Baby and George Clooney behind the camera for his directorial debut. Clooney also tackled the crucial supporting role of Jim Byrd, a glowering CIA handler who recruits the game show king into the shadowy world of international espionage.

Chuck begins the movie in a state of profound emotional disrepair. He stands before us, shaggy and pot-bellied, both emotionally and physically naked. He is a man of darkness. He’d seem to be the antithesis of the smiling goofball Chuck Barris played on TV, but really he’s just the flip side, the deep, depressive funk following a manic high that lasted decades.

We are then transported from this bleak ending to a similarly bleak beginning, as young Chuck Barris grows up and tries to find himself — a process that mostly involves trying unsuccessfully to get women to have sex with him. When he begins to work in television, his passes are increasingly reciprocated to an almost disconcerting degree.

But there’s more to the up-and-coming Chuck’s life than ambition, television, and sex. There’s also incoherent rage, the kind of bottomless, visceral anger that leads to bar fight after bar fight after bar fight, even though he’s really bad at bar fighting. Then one day, this struggling young man is approached by Clooney’s Jim Byrd, who informs him that “he fits the profile” of the kind of young man the CIA is interested in (violent, angry, directionless, devoid of close emotional attachments) and offers him an unusual opportunity to serve his country as an independent contractor killing people for the agency.

Jim Byrd is less a man than a sinister force, the terrifying darkness in Barris’ soul rendered human. He understands that Barris will kill people for him not because he needs the money but because killing satiates the beast within like nothing else. Jim serves as the devil on our protagonist’s shoulder whenever Chuck is tempted to leave his double life behind and go straight.

Penny perfectly suits the sunny vulnerability and naked sincerity at the core of Barrymore’s persona.

If Jim is the devil, then Chuck’s longtime on-again, off-again girlfriend Penny (Drew Barrymore) is the angel on the other side, forever trying to gently nudge him towards the light. She’s the only person in our anti-hero’s secretly sad world and lonely existence who can penetrate his formidable shields and connect with him on a profound human level. Penny roars joyously into Chuck’s life as the embodiment of both the 1960s counterculture and the sexual revolution, but her aspirations are profoundly old-fashioned: she genuinely loves Chuck — a man who cannot reciprocate that love because he hates himself — and wants to marry him.

Barrymore is heartbreaking as Chuck’s best, last, and only chance for happiness. The role perfectly suits the sunny vulnerability and naked sincerity at the core of Barrymore’s persona. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind finds her at her most ebullient, but even when she’s beaming a radiant movie star smile, there’s something deeply sad about her character and her impossible love for an impossible man.

Penny is understandably none too overjoyed about having to share Chuck with the rest of the world, but also with glamorous femme fatale Patricia Watson, played by Julia Roberts not as a human being but as an overly recognizable type: the glamorous woman of mystery who is endlessly seductive yet completely unavailable. It’s a character and a performance devoid of nuance, humility, and humanity. Patricia’s been pulled straight from spy movies and paperback novels rather than real life, and she epitomizes the frustrating artifice and over-stylization that keeps Confessions from being as funny and dark and poignant as it should be.

The script was written by Charlie Kaufman, and as Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and Kaufman himself understand, the key to filming his writing lies in playing up the ugly and painful but achingly human emotions at play in his screenplays, in making all of the craziness as real and authentic and realistic as possible. Clooney, though, takes an antithetical approach. Instead of embracing harsh reality, he plays up the artificiality, transforming everything into a cinephile fever dream from the late 1960s and 1970s. It makes sense on one level, because the action largely takes place in those decades, but that era also spawned the overwhelming majority of the movies Clooney shamelessly steals from as well.

Clooney directs Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind as if he’s never going to get another chance to work behind the camera again, as if he had to fit in every shot he’s ever dreamed of, admired, or wanted to pay tribute to in a single movie. The resulting style becomes oppressive and distracting; instead of drawing us into the world of the characters and their emotions, Clooney’s direction continually draws attention to itself in ways that work against the material.

Clooney directs Confessions as if he’s never going to get another chance to work behind the camera again.

It also betrays a profound lack of confidence in his actors, his story and his screenplay. It’s as if he feels that Sam Rockwell playing a game show host/CIA assassin in a movie written by Charlie Kaufman just won’t be enough to hold the audience’s attention on its own, and it’s up to him to keep them alert and awake with some really ambitious crane shots and 1970s-style zooms. Barris is a true original and Kaufman certainly is a true original, but Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is so deeply indebted to Clooney’s favorite films that it feels like a pastiche, full of reverence but with distressingly little personality of its own. The glibness makes more of an impression than the comedy, which is both too clever and not quite clever enough, as in a winking sequence where a Dating Game beauty chooses a fat, sad-looking blob of a man over contestants played by Brad Pitt and Matt Damon in cameos.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind works best as a deeply sad meditation on how money, fame, and success ruin and corrupt us, how they make us selfish and self-absorbed and single-mindedly devoted to our own unquenchable needs and desires. There’s a sadness to Rockwell’s performance even at his goofiest that conveys the profound costs his character has paid for a life of sex and success but little authentic human connection.

Scattered throughout Confessions are documentary-style “talking head” segments where real people from Barris’ life and career, like Dick Clark and The Gong Show sexpot Jaye P. Morgan, talk about Barris and his enigmatic ways. It doesn’t pay off until the very end, when we finally see the real Chuck Barris. Unlike the rest of the talking heads, Barris doesn’t say anything, although we do hear his final bleakly funny, bleakly philosophical words via off-camera narration. In choosing not to address the camera as the film ends, Barris ends up saying so much more than any of the others.

Well into old age, Chuck Barris’ face retained an elfin, mischievous quality, but it also effortlessly conveyed pain and darkness and sadness. It was the face of a man who has lived, if not quite the surreal misadventures chronicled in the book and film, then a long and hard, joyous and traumatizing life all the same. You don’t have to kill dozens of people for the United States government to end your life with a face that betrays a life full of despair and regret. Sometimes it’s enough to be a man who made a lot of terrible television, or a man who has lived a life full enough to accommodate a whole lot of sadness and regret. That’s our Chuckie baby, as well as the killer doppelgänger found here.

Original Certification: Fresh
Tomatometer: 79 percent
Re-Certification: Fresh

Nathan Rabin is a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin

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