In a 1984 memoir, Chuck Barris purported to have worked for the CIA as an assassin. He claimed at the time that it wasn’t true, and he was just trying to make a point, but the 2002 feature film Confessions of a Dangerous Mind takes the concept and runs with it. It tells a fictionalized account of his life, changing some names, taking the assassin story at face value, and building a story around that. On the one hand, it’s a bit unbelievable that the CIA would have an assassin that became so high-profile and kept using him. On the other hand, given that this is the man who was essentially the godfather of the “reality TV” genre, maybe it’s not so far-fetched; killing people isn’t that much worse than what he was already doing.
And you just thought it was the contestants who might be serial killers.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was the directorial debut of George Clooney, and as such, it makes use of several Clooney cronies. Though it was five years before Ocean’s Thirteen, there’s a mild sense of déjà vu with Matt Damon and Brad Pitt each having cameos as bachelors on the dating game, and more significant roles for Julia Roberts and Clooney himself. Clooney plays Jim Byrd, the man who recruits Chuck Barris as a CIA assassin; Roberts plays a CIA handler who provides intel on the assignments. Barris himself is played by Sam Rockwell (and a young Michael Cera in childhood flashbacks), and his sort-of-girlfriend Penny is played by Drew Barrymore. And Rutger Hauer has a small but memorable role as a fellow assassin.
Barrymore is very believable as Penny, who starts off both flirty and flighty, and gradually becomes more serious and down to earth as she matures over the years. Roberts, making a break from the romantic comedy heroine she usually plays, is actually pretty good as a femme fatale, even if the role doesn’t have a lot of meat to it. Clooney, is of course, Clooney; while we know little to nothing about Jim Byrd, and see him only in connection with Barris, Clooney’s star power is such that we get the sense that the movie might have been considerably more interesting from that perspective. And Rutger Hauer’s role as Keeler is, despite lasting only a few minutes, one of the highlights of the film. Nobody does charming-yet-creepy like Rutger Hauer.
If Rutger Hauer says this is an ideal photo op, then you darned well get out the camera.
You’ll notice I omitted Sam Rockwell while praising the actors, and that was, of course, not accidental. Whether it was because of Rockwell’s acting, or the character he was playing, I don’t know, but I found the character to be completely devoid of charisma. I’m inclined to say it’s some of both. I’ve only seen Rockwell in two films — The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Iron Man 2 — and while I enjoyed both films, both had their weaknesses, and his characters were among those weaknesses in both movies. But it’s not all him… Chuck Barris, as written (I can’t speak to his real-life personality) is simply an unsympathetic asshole who drifts aimlessly with nothing for the audience to connect to.
It’s far from the only problem with the film. The film is alternately irritating and tedious, and it’s seldom anything else. There are some scenes with bad acting, and while I think that was deliberate, there’s a trick to deliberately bad acting: it still has to be entertaining in some fashion. This was just bad. And bad deliberately bad acting is essentially indistinguishable from just plain old bad acting. But worse, the movie was simply dull. Even the assassination scenes were uninteresting. Now, it may be more realistic — I suspect competent assassinations are usually not very flashy — but this is a movie, an entertainment product. Entertain me, or don’t bother making the film. Give me a little pizzazz, something to look forward to through the humdrum of Barris’s life as a low-brow game show host.
There’s also a lot of nudity in this film, but don’t get your hopes up. It’s not of Drew Barrymore, or any other attractive actress, it’s extended shots of Sam Rockwell’s ass. That’s actually one of the main framing devices of the movie, Chuck Barris standing around naked. Not joking, wish I were. Most of the story is told in flashback as Barris stands naked in his hotel room wondering what went wrong with his life. As framing devices go, it needs work. He’s not moving around, he’s not emoting, he’s not even moving his lips; the narration is strictly voice-over. You can tell it’s a film because when it’s focusing on his face his eyes blink, but otherwise it could have been replaced with a still image. It’s boring, it’s pointless, and I feel I must stress again that I didn’t want to spend upwards of 20 minutes staring at Sam Rockwell’s ass.
Even Sam Rockwell being an ass is preferable.
The film’s other framing device is of actual interview clips from real celebrities who have worked with Chuck Barris, from Dick Clark to Gong Show regular “the Unknown Comic”. It’s a neat idea, but it doesn’t work in execution. It just took me out of the film, and it didn’t actually add anything to the film.
There are some well-directed sequences in the film — the poisoned cup gambit is unusually well thought out, though I would have preferred it simply be shown linearly — but as a whole, I can’t say this was a great directorial debut. A lot of that is probably due to the script, which just made for a tedious narrative that had no business being so dull, but it’s up to the director to cut out chaff and re-work things if they don’t work. And Confessions of a Dangerous Mind simply didn’t work for me.