starring Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore, George Clooney, Julia Roberts
screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, based on the book by Chuck Barris
directed by George Clooney
by Walter Chaw The second of two biographies of television personalities to make it to the cinema in 2002, George Clooney's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is almost the anti-Auto Focus, tying itself to the chaotic memoirs of game-show host Chuck Barris and locating its identity in anarchic precepts of post-modernism (in sharp contrast to Auto Focus' reductive realism). Curiously, both films find a climax of sorts in a dream--I should say "dementia"--sequence wherein the stars of the show find their fantasies acted out through their small-screen vehicles. Where Bob Crane's bizarre personal life appears to be truth, however (the crux of familial challenges of the film seem to hinge on Crane not being moody and never having had a penile implant), Barris's contention that he split time between "The Gong Show" and being a fulltime CIA assassin gives considerably more pause. The real distinguishing quality of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is that it is a big-budget biopic that acts as simultaneously a satire of, and adherent to, the familiar progression of the genre--the layers of self-reflexivity so multi-foliate and rich that it comes as no surprise that screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation., Being John Malkovich) is the scribe responsible for its slipperiness.
Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell, in a star-making turn) produces and hosts anti-television television shows "The Gong Show", "The Dating Game", and "The Newlywed Game", and, accordingly, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is an anti-filmic film that is as much about our meta-knowledge of pop culture as it is about Barris. After launching his embarrassingly successful projects, Barris is recruited by a CIA spook (George Clooney), makes contact with a Cold War Mata Hari (Julia Roberts), partners with a weary German counterpart (Rutger Hauer), and emotionally abuses Penny (a surprisingly good Drew Barrymore), his only real chance for normalcy. More Spielberg's self-mocking Catch Me If You Can than Julie Taymor's impressionistic Frida, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind examines the creation of a personal cult of personality on a public stage and its attendant guilt/exultation. The "eureka" of the film is that the "mind" of the title is none other than our own collective media unconscious.
As a director, Clooney shows himself remarkably assured and witty (even as he comes into his own as an actor this year with Soderbergh's criminally underestimated Solaris). Its transitions liquid and its line between real and surreal forever in flux, the picture is something like Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in its visual audacity and because both are adaptations that honour the protean structure of their difficult respective sources. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind finds its pulse in its subterranean existentialism--the film joins the year's other best pictures in its restructuring of the conventional romance as well as its discussion of the romance of identity construction and revision.
In Chuck Barris, the subtexts of Solaris, Adaptation., Punch-Drunk Love, and so on find their truest avatar, while in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, one finds what is among the canniest satires of our illusion-obsessed culture. It is film at its best--as societal prism and meta-critic--and it plays fast and loose, leaving the string-tying to an audience savvy from years of immersion in an ever-festering, increasingly perverse cultural stew. The antivenin to stuff like "Survivor" or "Fear Factor", Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is about how a web of lies and deceptions is a web all the same: as dangerous and sticky as the real deal. Originally published: December 31, 2002.