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Confessions of a Dangerous Mind forms a link between two other movies from 2002. Like Auto Focus, it looks at the darker side of a popular seventies television figure, and like Adaptation (which shares the same screenwriter), it’s a deliberately confusing mix of truth and fiction. If you liked either of those films, you should check out Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

The Double Life of Chuck

Happiness is a warm gun
Happiness is a warm gun

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is actor George Clooney’s directorial debut. It’s the life story of Chuck Barris (played by a talented Sam Rockwell), best known as the host of the Gong Show, and creator of The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game. Clooney tells us his movie is based on “private journals, public records, and taped interviews,” and the movie shares the same title as Barris’ own “unauthorized autobiography.”

The biggest surprise for those who haven’t read the book is Barris’ fantastic claim, presented as fact, that he was an assassin for the CIA, and that he killed about 40 men during his career.

Cynic TV

One thread of the story follows the rise and fall of Barris. He starts as a tour guide for NBC, knowing that one day he wants to work in television. He pitches shows to executives, only to have them rejected.

During his struggles, he gets support from his freespirited, sometimes-girlfriend Penny (Drew Barrymore). Their on-screen relationship looks like the one between Woody Harrelson and Courtney Love in The People versus Larry Flynt: open, experimental, loving, and often troubled.

His relationship inspires Barris to create a new game show called The Dating Game. The executives say “yes” and give him the chance to make a pilot episode. What he produces is too risque for TV. One executive’s exact words are “We can’t have black men getting blow jobs on national television.” But his concept, as we all know, survived, and Barris becomes a TV producer.

Barris is a cynic. He correctly predicted that Americans would be willing to embarrass themselves just to go on TV and win a stupid prize. According to the movie, he gets inspiration for The Newlywed Game from watching a lecture on genital electrocution and torture given by the CIA.

Cloak and Gagger

The CIA plot isn’t nearly as interesting as the story of Barris’ career in TV. It works better as an alternate parallel psychological universe, offering glimpses into Barris’ mind. As integral to the story as it is, I often found it to be a distraction. It’s a clever storytelling gimmick, and it’s a great marketing gimmick, but dramatically, it doesn’t really work.

What’s really interesting about Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is the notion that Barris was not a great innovator in television, but a bad influence, lowering the bar for TV. “I think you’re the most insidious, despicable force in entertainment today,” says an anonymous non-fan at a Hollywood party.

That may be hard for today’s audiences to understand. We have a glut of fame-starved idiots willing to do anything on reality TV shows. Chuck Barris looks like Saint Mozart compared to today’s producers. And yet, 30 years ago, Barris was the lowest of the low.

Just a man ahead of his time, apparently.

Don’t Get Involved

Charlie Kaufman wrote screenplays for both Confessions and Adaptation this year. Both blur the line between reality and fiction. Both invite audiences to sever their emotional involvement and to think about how what they’re seeing isn’t real, even though it pretends to be.

This sort of emotional disengagement isn’t new. Luis Bunuel, Jean-Luc Godard, and Michelangelo Antonioni all tried to achieve the same thing, although they had different approaches. But as much as I respect these filmmakers (and Kaufman), my favorite films remain the ones that suck me in.

While I can appreciate Confessions and Adaptation, both keep me from thoroughly enjoying them by keeping me at a distance, by pushing me away, rather than taking me in.

ConCloosion

George Clooney’s debut is a satisfactory movie. He gets good performances from his cast (including himself in a minor role), and he’s able to convincingly recapture the era of the 1960s and ’70s. If he has gone beyond the mechanics of directing and established a sense of style, it is something akin to the quirky quiet humor in O Brother Where Art Thou? We’ll just have to wait for a sophomore picture to see if that’s the case.