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'Confessions of a Dangerous Mind'

Confessions of some kind of mind

Friday, January 24, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

I appreciate George Clooney's desire to cut his directorial teeth on a sharply written screenplay. He must enjoy a challenge -- unlike most of Hollywood, which desires only a sure thing even if it means your epitaph will read that you grossed $150 million making "Scooby-Doo."

 
 
'Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind'

RATING: R for language, sexual content and violence.

STARRING: Sam Rockwell, George Clooney, Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts.

DIRECTOR: George Clooney.

Critic's call:

   
 

Clooney has the opposite problem on his debut film, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind." His reach exceeds his grasp.

The movie recounts the life of Chuck Barris, who complains his epitaph will read that he produced and hosted TV's "Gong Show." This twisted take on talent contests solicited performers who might have been rejected by the circus geek show. The whole idea was to irritate celebrity judges into terminating the act by hammering a large Asian gong.

Barris, portrayed by Sam Rockwell, says there was more to him than his viewers ever imagined. He claims he was a paid assassin for the CIA who used his programs "The Dating Game" and "The Newlywed Game" as a cover, chaperoning winners in exotic foreign locales where he was licensed to kill enemy agents.

He's putting us on, right? Barris looked like a curly-haired stoner, a lounge act in a leisure suit trying to be hip. Who would believe him as a cold-blooded killer?

Ah, but maybe that was the point. Or maybe Barris made the whole thing up, trying to burnish his image against accusations that his TV shows demeaned humanity, trying to convince himself he was successful at something important.

That makes him the perfect subject for screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who specializes in movies about bizarre identity shifts. In "Being John Malkovich," a man discovers a portal into the title actor's mind. In "Adaptation," Kaufman inserts himself into the story along with a twin brother, Donald, who doesn't actually exist.

In other words, Kaufman qualifies as a sick puppy, though a mighty talented one. So does Barris, in his own way, whether the CIA stuff is true or not.

Maybe the movie needed a sick puppy to direct it, too. Clooney is a straight arrow, a good-looking actor and seemingly decent fellow who sincerely wants to make good movies. He helps low-budget newcomers like the Russo brothers of "Welcome to Collinwood." He rode to the rescue of the long-delayed "Confessions," calling in acting pals Rockwell and Julia Roberts, who has a supporting role as a femme fatale Barris meets on his spy missions.

He strains mightily to convey Barris' strange personality -- we first see the character standing buck naked in a messy hotel room, staring blankly in the direction of a television set as if catatonic. This is Barris at his low point, after the networks have canceled his shows. In effect, he has been gonged, and he looks as bewildered as his one-time contestants.

Then, the movie takes us back to the beginning -- Barris, barely adolescent, trolling for sexual stimulation from a girl of the same age. Through his teens, most of his efforts result in frustration until he meets Penny (Drew Barrymore), the roommate of a girl he was seeing. They kept an open relationship through the years, but she was the touchstone to whom he could return when the going got rough. Clooney lets his camera work get carried away here, with swoops and pans calling attention to themselves.

Just as we are settling in for what looks like the confessions of a neurotic man, along comes Clooney the actor as Jim Byrd, who recruits Barris for the CIA. We follow them to a training camp for assassins somewhere out west, wondering all the while how the train jumped the tracks.

By this point in the film, we understand Barris is kind of a loon. Nothing that happens subsequently, as the movie explores his TV adventures and his spy exploits, disabuses us of the notion. That's why it's so hard to accept the idea that he might have what it takes to be a professional assassin.

Judging from Kaufman's track record, one would expect far more ambiguity about the truth of the situation. Clooney takes the movie straight ahead, leaving a different kind of ambiguity in our head. We know when we're supposed to laugh, but we're not always sure whether we should.


Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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