Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
I remember The Gong Show. We didnt watch it very often at our house because my parents found it irredeemably stupid and cruel. I cant really say that I disagree very much, but it did have a certain adolescent appeal to it. In light of what were offered now in the forms of talk shows and reality television, The Gong Show seems innocent with its excessive silliness and teasing of those gullible enough to appear. Little did we know that it was but a hint of what was to come. The hub around which The Gong Show turned was Chuck Barris, creator of a multitude of game shows, including both the Dating Game and the Newlywed Game. Barris not only created, but also hosted The Gong Show. Later in his life, Barris would go on to write his supposed memoirs. It is these memoirs that form the basis of the film Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.
In his directorial debut, George Clooney shows us the purported life and times of the aging Barris. The film opens in 1981, with a haggard and worn down Barris hitting rock bottom, and sitting down to write his story as a way to escape his demons. Sam Rockwell plays Barris with an absolutely uncanny eye for the mans sound and bearing. As we flash back, the story of Barris life begins to unfold with a young man hungry for success and a knack for knowing what people want. As he eventually makes his way into the maze of Hollywood, and begins understanding the myriad disappointments that come with the dream he chases, Barris is approached by an agent of the CIA (Clooney) with a proposition that Barris become a paid assassin for the government. Thus begins the double life of Chuck Barris, a roller coaster of success, failure and killing.
Clooney gives us a film in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind that is really superbly directed, well written (by Charlie Kaufman) and beautifully filmed (by Newton Thomas Sigel). Every scene is tight, advancing the story, giving us a wider view of our subject. The period details are wonderful, as we travel from the late 50s through the early eighties. The clothes, hairstyles, television conventions of each period are seamlessly woven into the story. They dont stick out as PERIOD DETAILS; they simply fit into the story being told. The cinematography is excellent as well, particularly in the sequences where Barris is feeling oppressed by his life. One scene in particular, where he is feeling haunted by ghosts from his past, is clever and almost dizzying, leaving us feeling Barris panic.
And the performances are outstanding. Rockwell is amazing in both the accuracy of his depiction of Barris mannerisms, speech and appearance, and in his ability to make us feel at least something for the man. Rockwell provides just the right touch of insecurity and self-doubt to make the character slightly less than completely despicable. Clooney is over the top wooden and stoic as the CIA front man and this works well. He comes off as a caricature, someone less than completely real, which is exactly what the role needs.
The women in Barris life, Penny (Drew Barrymore) from his TV world and Patricia (Julia Roberts) from his CIA world, both serve their purposes. Penny is the more complete character, as the woman that sticks by Barris throughout his trials and tribulations, expecting nothing and getting just about that. Barrymore does a nice job with the role, making Penny both a stable presence in the life of the troubled Barris, as well as an embodiment of how times change throughout the film. Roberts is her usual stiff self as the haughty and arrogant Patricia. She suits the role well, actually. Patricia is another cardboard cutout person. She is unidimensional, just like Clooneys CIA front man. There is a sameness, a lack of inflection, a lack of depth to these characters. They are cold war stereotypes and nothing more. It seems very much as if Clooney wants these characters to be flat and unreal, to distinguish them from the characters that we know exist, the story we know to be true. Regardless of intention, these characters provide an excellent device through which to view the CIA world as little more than delusion. The scenes in which the CIA storyline play out are much the same as the characters in them. Standard, worn clichés of what it is to be a spy. Nothing that cant be found in any of a thousand books from the era.
The real problem with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is not that it isnt a beautifully done film. It is. Or that the performances arent good enough to tell the story. They are. Or even that the script is sloppy or without direction. It isnt. In fact, the script is at times clever and funny. How Kaufman managed this is a mystery. Hes clearly an immensely talented man. The problem is that this mans story just isnt really particularly interesting. Whether or not the CIA aspect of Barris life is fact, fiction or delusion really doesnt matter. If its true, well, thats disturbing, I guess. If not, thats pathetic, I guess. Neither way is it interesting enough to sustain a two-hour film. There is little here that is really riveting. The story steams through Barris life, giving marvelous attention to detail, the only problem being that the details get boring quickly.
What we have, basically, is the story of a fairly dour and unappealing human being who will do anything to be in the spotlight. A minor celebrity at best, with a personal life that mirrors that constant professional scrabbling for more, more, more. As a viewer, I find the CIA aspect of the story to be ludicrous, just another pathetic attempt by Barris to be a star. And it worked. A washed up game show host as the subject of a big budget, star filled major motion picture. But hes still nothing more than a washed up game show host. The interviews with former Gong Show regulars interspersed throughout the film are, I suppose, there to make us believe that this man could indeed have led this double life. But what they really do is highlight the fact that even those close to Barris either didnt like him or didnt care enough to know what his life was actually like off the set. That doesnt make him secret agent man, just pathetic unlikable man.
Overall, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is an excellent rendering of an uninteresting story about an attention seeking, unappealing man. Clooney clearly shows that he has what it takes to direct a major film, as the production here is wonderful. I suppose if you have some interest in Barris going into the film, it may really strike a chord. For the rest of us, who have largely forgotten Barris, the details of his life are just not that exciting. His CIA tale is baloney, and the rest of it is just pretty boring. Three stars for a very good rendering of an uninspiring story.
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