Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

December, 2002, Comedy

Directed by:George Clooney

Starring:Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore, George Clooney, and Julia Roberts

Actors don't often make good directors, though Lord knows, lots of them try. From Richard Attenborough to Denzel Washington, the annals of moviedom are replete with painful examples of their efforts. (Perhaps no living actor has done a better job in this area than Clint Eastwood, although his recent works suggest a lagging energy level) A pair of major Hollywood actors make their directorial debuts this season; the aforementioned Mr. Washington, (in Antowne Fisher, a film I've not yet had the chance to see) and handsome leading man George Clooney. While it's too early to tell whether Washington should confine himself to his thespian skills, Confessions strongly suggests Clooney can handle work at the back of the camera as well as the front.

This movie is adapted from the book of the same name by schlock game show creator/host Chuck Barris, whose contributions to Minnow's description of T.V. as a "vast wasteland" include the "Dating Game", the Newlywed Game" and "The Gong Show", the last of which prefigured the self-abasing proclivities of current offerings like "The Anna Nicole Show" and "The Jerry Springer Show", thus helping to redefine bad taste. What kind of personality is required to create and package stuff like this?

Barris answered that question in his confabulated autobiography which discloses, (along with his highly uneven success with women) the fact that he was a contract killer for the CIA, dispatching a few dozen enemy agents while escorting the winners "The Dating Game" to exotic locales like Helsinki and East Berlin during the height of the Cold War. Does Barris really expect us to take him seriously? Improbable as it may be, "The Gong Show" drew avid audiences by the millions in its day- so why should a few undercover assassinations cause a big leap in credibility?

With tongue wickedly in cheek, Clooney and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) take this most unlikely of sources, and using a host of his movie star buddies, (Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon) serves up a deliciously rancid commentary on celebrity status and the self-loathing which often accompanies self-promotion. As director, Clooney doesn't take the easy way out; this is material that could have easily been mishandled; in his own role, (as a darkly mysterious C.I.A. operative who seems to know more about Barris and his motivations than Barris does) Clooney never uses his directorial prerogative to upstage the movie's central personality as the center of attention. Clooney also employs Drew Barrymore as Barris' on-again, off-again girl friend, drawing a performance from her as fresh and fully developed as any she's ever given. As Barris, character actor Sam Rockwell more than holds his own against the much better known actors in the story and offers up a frenetic portrait as laughable and dopey as it is paranoid and frightening. 

In many ways, this film can be seen as a companion piece to screenwriter Kaufman's presentation of his own alter ego in Adaptation; hubris and self-disgust blend with adrenalin-fueled anxiety about how to live and the price some pay to gain eagerly-sought if undeserved recognition. By the time the seriously disturbed Barris overcomes his self-inflicted demons by writing his autobiography, Clooney suggests that Barris settled for mere notoriety rather than real accomplishment. But the film wanders on a bit too long and finally settles on a portrait of grim, self-absorbed dread.

None of this detracts from Confession's sure and swift sense of humor; mixing vulgar dialogue and Barris's loopy way with the opposite sex, Clooney makes sight gags and bedroom farce jostle with deadpan seriousness and ominous paranoia.

The results work for almost the entire length of the movie. The consistently sharp performances of the cast are aided by Clooney's imaginative camerawork which mixes foreground action against a split-screen background, employing lighting techniques and visually evocative sets to support his contention that Barris' slip from the real world into one created by his own fevered imagination contained a strange logic.  Still, the movie sags as it pulls all these overly ambitious loose ends together to make something comprehensible out of its barely lucid protagonist. This may be Kaufman's fault as much as Clooney's; the aftertaste here isn't dissimilar from that found at the end of Adaptation; however cleverly they’re presented, self-absorbed clowns just don't sustain interest in ways that make for great movie experiences. 

Clooney's choice of material notwithstanding, here's a directorial debut worth noting.                           .         

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