In the 70s, Chuck Barris was killing us softly with his gong. Or so said the cultural critics of the time. Surprisingly, the game show entrepeneur who created The Gong Show and The Dating Game, among others, had a bit of a thin skin about the apocalyptic judgments levelled against him. So he recrafted his life in a pop art "unauthorized autobiography," 1982's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. After years of abortive attempts, Barris's story finally arrives on American big screens, courtesy of another one-time TV personality: George Clooney.
With his directorial debut, Clooney acquits himself admirably. Clooney's tightrope oversees the comforting safety net of buddy and executive producer Steven Soderbergh (Confessions is edited by Soderbergh's regular cutter, Oscar-winning Steven Mirrione). But Clooney's gonzo approach and dynamic camerawork suggest a stew of directorial influences, as much (David O.) Russell, Coen, and Fincher as Soderbergh. Alternating cold, bleached-out pastels with flared-out white heat, Clooney sets the stage for the hot-cold, devil-angel duality of the story.
Sam Rockwell plays Barris, an ambitious, oversexed ne'er-do-well who climbs the Hollywood ladder from TV network tour guide to full-fledged producer of lowbrow entertainments. The transcendent twist of both Barris's book and Clooney's film comes when Barris is approached by Jim Byrd (Clooney), a mustached mystery man who offers Barris a gig as a CIA hitman; here is the stuff of Barris's legend. The story spirals its way--in the manner of manic addiction--away from and back to Barris' nervous-breakdown nadir. His double-life, appropriately, finds him caught between two women: Drew Barrymore's loving, painfully mistreated hippie chick and Julia Roberts's exotically sexy Mata Hari.
Rockwell's bid for stardom is--true to form--unconventional but winning. If Clooney's features are affable, Rockwell's are a rubbery special effect of bemusement and chicanery. With shambling, lazy speech a half-step behind the beat giving way to fits of eager, mad-scientist delirium, Rockwell's Barris suggests the comic Jekyll-Hyde of a Friz Freleng cartoon.
All this duality points back to the real star of the show: nihilist entertainer Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman is, of course, the screenwriter of Being John Malkovich and two other 2002 films, the misfiring curiosity Human Nature and the inventive Adaptation. The conspiracy comedy of Confessions inspires the writer; Barris could be another of Kaufman's screen alter egos. More than simply running with Barris's 60s spy fantasy, Kaufman indulges the torturous side which birthed it (the screen Barris likewise describes his shows as "pushed...into the world through the birth canal of my imagination"). The other dual thread--of Barrymore's angel set against Roberts's devilish femme fatale is clever, but hollow; like the upwardly mobile Barris, this story is more compelled by the fantasy female object of excitement and scorn than it is by the real thing.
As retold by Kaufman, Barris's tall tales are a demented denial (or compensation) for the brand of worthlessness which sears him. Kaufman lets the spectre of mediocrity (or is it the soul-sucking task of "hitting" people?) slowly eat away at the man now described--as a matter of course--as the progenitor of brainless reality TV. In a cymbal-ic crash of subversive good humor and self-aware horror, the movie Barris puts a gun to the paper-bagged head of the Unknown Comic and demands, "What's your name?" before turning to see an audience of bloody corpses. Chuck, stop it, you're killing us!