Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: Pioneering but lowbrow TV producer Chuck Barris leads a complicated life. Not only does his TV work get mercilessly criticised despite its popularity, and not only is he unable to give his lover Penny the kind of stable relationship she craves; he also happens to be a government agent, carrying out hits for the CIA.

Sam Rockwell plays Chuck Barris, the TV producer responsible for such memorable shows as The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show. However, as the title and opening shots of Barris standing bearded and naked in a dingy New York hotel suggest, this is not a cosy little picture about cosy game shows, but a look at the bizarre and perilous career of a man (possibly) caught up in international intrigue.

The film presents the story as absolutely authentic, using real-life colleagues of Barris such as Dick Clark to talk about the dramatised action, following Chuck from an instructive (if unpleasant) episode from his childhood, through early success as a songwriter, to an initially unsuccessful attempt to get The Dating Game on TV. During this time, his sexual conquests lead him into the company of carefree Penny (Drew Barrymore), who becomes his lover, although not exclusively.

Chuck’s shows eventually get some airtime (although in a far more censored version than he would like), and he is approached by CIA operative Jim Byrd (George Clooney) who makes him an offer he would be unwise to refuse, namely to become an agent himself and help the US Government in their worldwide fight against Communism (their shooting practice targets are, appropriately, Castro and Chairman Mao). The European trips offered by The Dating Game are perfect cover for Barris’s missions, where he comes into intimate contact with another agent, Patricia (Julia Roberts) – or is it Olivia? – who is beautiful and, unlike Penny, literate and clever.

Narrowly escaping death in East Germany, Barris’s double life takes its toll, shown by his drinking and paranoia whilst filming the heavily-criticised Gong Show. Despite marrying Penny, a complete breakdown sees Chuck naked in the hotel room, although there’s still some unfinished business in the spy game and one last meeting with Patricia.

Just like his second film, Good Night, and Good Luck, Clooney’s directorial debut deals with a bygone age of television. And just like the later film, I found this effort a curiously incomplete affair. It’s entirely possible that, as a non-American, this stems from my lack of familiarity with the characters and programmes at the centre of events; but if that is the case I would blame the film, in part at least – the viewer doesn’t need everything laid out on a plate, but some context is always helpful.

In terms of how it looks, Confessions… can’t be faulted, with the TV sets, fashions through the 60s and 70s and wintry locations in Europe all looking the part. Furthermore, in the key roles of Barris and Byrd, Sam Rockwell and director Clooney are perfectly solid, even though Barrymore is irritatingly perky and fails to convince as a liberated girl in the late fifties, saying things like “cats and chicks.” Roberts also feels too modern as the shadowy overseas contact, though this may all be part of Barris’s fantasy.

The film’s main problem, however, is that it feels far too safe, especially given the potential of the story (the credits freely admit that elements of the story are fictional, so why not go further?). Surprisingly for a film with a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman (responsible for ripping films like Adaptation and Being John Malkovich), the film is slow moving and fairly dry; somehow you know which bits are supposed to be funny, but they don’t raise a laugh (although there are lovely cameos from Brad Pitt and Matt Damon as Dating Game losers).

The whole thing could have been funnier, sexier, and more dramatic; and the score is as much of a culprit as anything else, light jazz or classics undercutting the drama at every moment. Vitally, too, you barely get a sense for Chuck the man; indeed he’s almost psychopathic in his dealings with relationships, and since he’s fairly loathsome from the start the viewer isn’t much bothered about whether he’s making the whole CIA thing up or not, or whether he turns up dead or alive at the film’s end.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind shows a high degree of polish and Clooney is clearly enthralled by his subjects and how the fight against Communism pervaded his patch (ie. the entertainment industry) in the Cold War years. The era is brilliantly brought to life and in Rockwell’s Chuck, the director has an odd but potentially fascinating anti-hero. However, for the most part that potential is unrealised, and importantly, the answer to the only important question, “Would I want to see that again?” has to be a shrugged “not really”.

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