We all remember Chuck Barris as the creator of some of television's most successful - albeit notoriously mind-numbing - game shows: `The Dating Game,' `The Newlywed Game,' and `The Gong Show.' But did you know that he was also a hit man for the CIA? Well, that's what he claims, straight from his own `unauthorized autobiography' entitled `Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,' which has now been made into a movie by director George Clooney and writer Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman is known for devising elaborately absurd scenarios for his fictional films (`Being John Malkovich,' `Adaptation' etc.), yet even Kaufman, in his wildest fantasies, could not have come up with a more bizarre premise than the one this real life story affords. No wonder he was drawn to this material. They are a perfect fit. In the world of movies, who says fact isn't stranger than fiction?
In many ways, Barris was one of the men responsible for starting the trend towards `reality television' that so dominates network programming today. His most famous hits (especially `The Gong Show') were all based on the premise that millions of Americans would be willing to humiliate themselves in public for a few moments of fleeting fame and that millions more would tune in to bear witness to the spectacle. Barris, craving fame himself, was simply savvy enough to plug into that national mood - and managed to make himself a fortune and turn himself into a household name in the process. What most of us didn't know about Barris at the time was that, while all this was going on, he was ostensibly leading a double life as a secret agent, tracking down and killing any number of `bad guys,' all in the name of `national security.'
Given the inherently incredible, jaw-dropping nature of the material, George Clooney, in his directorial debut, brings an appropriately surrealistic tone to the work. He employs a number of visual devices that help to fragment the world in which the story takes place. Certain scenes break through the constraints of time and space, as when Barris is talking on the phone in his apartment to an ABC executive, who is sitting in his office, and the two locations become one on the screen. The sense of dislocation this technique creates perfectly reflects the mental split occurring in Barris' own disturbed psyche. This style is further enhanced by the use of slightly off-kilter camera angles, color filtering and sepia tones in some of the shots. Scenarist Charlie Kaufman, as always, brings his own quirky vision to bear on the material. He cleverly balances the two `sides' of Barris' life, transitioning smoothly between those scenes revolving around his career as TV show producer and those revolving around his career as CIA operative. Moreover, Kaufman does a nice job getting inside the head of this man who is trying to fight the demons of his own past, make a name for himself in the high stakes world of network programming, cope with his own inadequacies as a person, and come to terms with the vile things he is doing in his secret life all at the same time.
As Barris, Sam Rockwell gives a terrific, high-energy performance, capturing the sadness and paranoia of a man who seems to know deep down inside that his fame is probably undeserved, built as it is on mediocre ideas and a willingness to exploit the baser instincts of human nature. Drew Barrymore brings her usual charm to the role of Penny, Barris' one true love and the only person genuinely drawn to Barris as a person, even though he is unable to commit himself to her fully, preferring instead to keep the relationship `casual' and uncommitted. Barris finds it impossible to make a real, meaningful connection to another human being, so twisted has he become in his value system and bizarre lifestyle. Rounding out the cast are Clooney himself, as the mysterious CIA agent who draws Barris into this strange netherworld of intrigue and danger, Rutger Hauer, as a fellow hit man who pours out his feelings about his chosen occupation to Barris, Julia Roberts, as the icy cool CIA operative who pops up at various moments and in various places to keep an eye on the young recruit, and even Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, who show up for a truly hilarious cameo appearance together, one that had the audience at the screening I attended howling with delight.
The $64,000 question becomes, of course, is this story even remotely true, or is it merely another case of this master showman's playing the public for all its worth? I haven't the slightest idea. The filmmakers certainly take it all very seriously, as evidenced by the fact that they have various friends and business acquaintances of Barris (Dick Clark, Jay P. Morgan) providing interviews for the film, interviews which hint at the dark possibility that the basis of the story might indeed be factual, given the kind of person these people claim Barris is. This gives the film a kind of pseudo-documentary realism that heightens the verisimilitude of what we are seeing on screen. Whether the film is really a true story or merely a grand lark perpetrated on an increasingly credulous audience, the fact is that `Confessions of a Dangerous Mind' turns out to be a thoroughly entertaining, utterly loony piece of original filmmaking.
`Confessions of a Dangerous Mind' marks an auspicious debut for Clooney as a director, who, in his work behind the camera, demonstrates a thorough command of vision and style. One looks forward to his next endeavor.