Lionsgate // 2002 // 114 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 7th, 2011
When you lead two different lives, it's easy to forget which side you're on.
"When you're young, your potential is infinite. You might do anything, really. You might be Einstein. You might be DiMaggio. Then you get to an age where what you might have been gives way to what you have been. You weren't Einstein. You weren't DiMaggio. That's a bad moment."
Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell, Moon) is known to the general public as the man who created such popular television game shows as The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show. However, much of his life is preoccupied by a secretive secondary career: working as an assassin for the CIA. We follow Chuck through various chapters in his life as persuades television executives to greenlight his game shows, meets his future wife Penny (Drew Barrymore, Whip It), receives secret assignments from the elusive Jim Byrd (George Clooney, The American) and engages in a tense game of cat-and-mouse with the seductive Patricia Watson (Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman).
It's fitting that Charlie Kaufman would be the one to write a film about the life of Chuck Barris, as Kaufman's obsession with the slippery relationship between reality and illusion aligns nicely with the life of a man well-known for slipping impossible fantasies into his personal recollections. It's been fairly well-established that Barris was not actually a CIA agent, and he certainly didn't assassinate 33 different enemies of the U.S. Government. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind underlines the absurdity of Barris' (intentionally absurd?) claims by simply taking those claims at face value. Kaufman and director George Clooney (making his debut behind the camera) find a way to have their cake and eat it, too: the directly indirect approach proves an enormously effective way to explore Barris' psyche, and also allows them to transform what could have been a traditional biopic into a story that occasionally feels like a collaboration between Robert Ludlum and John Le Carre.
That might make the film sound like an long-form gag incapable of sustaining itself, but nothing could be further from the truth. Clooney and Kaufman are so consistently inventive that they actually manage to distract us from the fact that Confessions of a Dangerous Mind follows a very traditional biopic path: the same old "rise and fall of a celebrity" arc we've seen in oh-so-many films. There are many scenes that play out in a manner that is entirely believable; snapshots of Barris' troubled personal life (his sex addiction rivals that of the character Rockwell played in Choke), which feel unflinchingly honest. Surprisingly, Clooney gives these scenes an intentionally stylized, artificial feel, tinkering with contrast and color until the scenes nearly look like moving paintings. Sometimes characters aren't appearing onscreen so much as splashing onscreen.
Meanwhile, the spy sequences are shot in a crisp, no-nonsense manner that suggests they might have come from a remake of The Day of the Jackal (indeed, these scenes provide the strongest foreshadowing of Clooney's identity as a director, as he has revealed himself as a thoughtful classicalist rather than the wildly restless experimentalist he appears to be in this film). There are some sly laughs during these moments, as Barris' claims are played straight despite their extreme improbability (such as when we witness the agitated TV personality doing a quick killing while escorting two lucky Dating Game winners through the less-than-colorful world of West Berlin). Clooney's matter-of-fact performance sets the tone for these portions of the movie, as the actor subdues his seemingly irrepressible charm and delivers his lines in the quiet, measured cadence of an actor like Scott Wilson or Kris Kristofferson.
Rockwell turns in some of the best work of career (perhaps only rivaled by his turn in Moon), depicting Barris as a man whose life seems consumed by chaos no matter what situation he's in. Rockwell's frantic, sweaty, energetic turn is kind of exhausting to watch; one gets the impression that being Chuck Barris was endlessly unpleasant. When he beds a beautiful woman, it seems less like enjoyable recreation than a way to scratch an irritating itch. When he wanders across Europe on secret missions, it seems less like a tense, exotic adventure than a way to kill time. Even his game shows seem inspired by his frustration with/spite for humanity (The Dating Game is a way to turn the "mindless chit-chat" young couples engage in into something useful, while The Gong Show gives him an outlet to mock the endless parade of untalented Americans hungry for attention and fame). When he published his autobiography Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and made claims of being an assassin for the CIA, was it an attempt at boosting his reputation and ego? I'm not so sure. Given this portrait of Barris, I'm more convinced that he published the book just to see how many idiots out there would believe it. Barris had enough insight to see that the nation was slowly burning to the ground, but chose to respond by throwing kindling on the fire and playing fiddle music.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (Blu-ray) might make the uninitiated wonder if something is wrong with their television set -- early on, Clooney employs all kinds of weird post-processing effects which make the characters look as if they've been dipped in a vat of radioactive chemicals. Don't worry, this 1080p/2.40:1 transfer looks exactly as its supposed to, though I should note that Clooney's visual flourishes are much more prominent in hi-def than they were on DVD. It's a fascinating approach and the film actually dazzles when it wants to, offering eye-popping detail in many scenes and accurately preserving intentionally warped visuals in others. Black levels are deep and inky throughout. Flesh tones are warm and natural when Clooney wants them to be. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is also strong, blending clean, well-captured dialogue and occasionally frantic sound design with an effective Alex Wurman score and an eclectic blend of period-appropriate tunes. There's little which will rattle your room, but it's an above-average mix. Supplements are ported over from the DVD: a commentary with Clooney and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, a 22-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, a 6-minute featurette spotlighting the real Chuck Barris, some deleted scenes, a Sam Rockwell screen test and a handful of recreated The Gong Show acts.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind offers a sensational directorial debut from George Clooney, one of Sam Rockwell's strongest performances and another wildly ambitious screenplay courtesy of Charlie Kaufman. It remains a rich, absorbing, entertaining watch and looks terrific in hi-def. Recommended.
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Gong Show Acts
* Screen Test