Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Unsung!: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

With the talent involved in this film, how could it have failed at the box office? That is not a rhetorical question. I am waiting. HOW COULD IT HAVE FAILED?
Answer me.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was George Clooney’s directing debut.  With the exception of Leatherheads (which comes off as something of a goof) I have enjoyed all of the films that Clooney has since directed; the Oscar-nominated Good Night and Good Luck is a particular standout. He has proved himself to be a subtle, nuanced director who shows particular sensitivity to the performances of his actors.

In Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Sam Rockwell plays Chuck Barris, and like all the best work of talented actors in biopics, the performance is not so much an impression (though Rockwell’s recreation of Barris’s Gong Show MC is uncanny) but rather it seems to channel the spirit of the person being portrayed. Few actors are able to do this; some examples include Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull, Bruce Campbell in Bubba Ho-Tep, Paul Giamatti in American Splendor, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia, and Cate Blanchet in I’m Not There. If you, like me, happen to be a fan of Rockwell, this film is a must-see. Rockwell is on that short list of actors who have never turned in a bad performance; he gives his all in parts large (Choke, Moon, the recent Seven Psychopaths) and small (Charlie’s Angels, Galaxy Quest, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). His performance in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a tour-de-force.

Best line? “Sorry about your teeth.”

The film features a script by Charlie Kauffman. This might help to explain why I am such a big fan. Kaufman adapted the script from Chuck Barris’s “unauthorized autobiography.” Although Kaufman later revealed to Empire Online that he was disappointed by the final product (some subplots and, if you can believe it, an EVEN DARKER TONE were dropped), it certainly fits in with the rest of his oeuvre, sharing themes with his later films Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, and even Synecdoche, New York.

LOOK AT THIS CAST: George Clooney, Sam Rockwell, Julia Roberts, Drew Barrymore, Rutger Hauer, Michael Cera, Maggie Gyllenhall… with a cast like that, the marketing department really must have dropped the ball on this movie. Look sharp for two big-star cameos during Clooney’s recreation of The Dating Game! Maybe they should have put those two names on the poster as well.
THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) is a hapless loser and unlucky in love; he decides to go into television in order to get girls. Leapfrogging from leading studio tours at NBC, to assisting Dick Clark on American Bandstand, to writing the Top Ten hit song “Palisades Park,” Barris winds up pitching The Dating Game to ABC. Initially, ABC passes on the idea. Then the mysterious Jim Byrd (George Clooney) recruits Barris as a CIA hitman and ABC mysteriously decides to put The Dating Game on the air, giving Barris the perfect opportunity to travel to CIA hits using his role as chaperone as his cover. Meanwhile, Barris launches the hit shows The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show, all while continuing to murder people for the federal government. His life and his mental health begin to unravel…

FULL DISCLOSURE: I grew up with Barris’s game shows; in the late sixties and early seventies they were often broadcast more than once a day, courtesy of separate daytime and prime time versions of the shows. There is even a clip of The Dating Game playing in the background of one scene in The Graduate. Barris’s shows were impossible to avoid. My nine year-old self really dug The Gong Show, man.

I remember reading Barris’s book when it was first published and thinking “there is no way that this can be true.” However, the more I thought about it, the more I began to entertain the notion that, like all successful lies, it actually made a crazy kind of sense. According to an interview with About.com, director Clooney did not want to know if the book was true or not; the ambiguity between truth and fiction was one of the themes he was exploring. He did wonder why Barris would propagate the lie that he was a murderer, “why someone as wealthy and as successful as Chuck Barris would have to do that.”

Much like the films Reds and When Harry Met Sally, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind features “talking head” interviews with the real people involved in the story. Original Dating Game host Jim Lange; Gong Show regulars Jaye. P Morgan and Murray Langston, the Unknown Comic; and Barris himself appear in these odd segments. These interviews are filmed in a distinct, bizarre, high-contrast style that makes the “reality” segments seem more removed from reality than the “fictional” film we are watching.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I was not originally bowled over the first time I saw this film, but much like my experience with other Charlie Kaufman films (which are so dense that it is hard to “take them all in” in one sitting) I was gradually convinced over four or five additional viewings that Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a masterpiece.  It helped that a certain P. Bromley once staged an excellent adaptation of this film as a high school theater production. “What is this?” I wondered aloud, causing quite a stir in the audience. “There must be something more to Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Because P. Bromley has exacting taste!” I was then escorted out.

One look at its troubled production history tells you this film is unique. In the 14 years that Confessions was in pre-production hell, no fewer than eight directors (Jim McBride, Curtis Hanson, P.J. Hogan, Sam Mendes, David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, Brian De Palma, and Bryan Singer) and eight leading men (Richard Dreyfuss, Sean Penn, Mike Meyers, Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Edward Norton, Ben Stiller, and Johnny Depp) were attached to the project. Yowsa. Clooney wound up directing Sam Rockwell (over the objections of the studio suits who did not want him) by convincing A-listers like Drew Barrymore and Julia Roberts to lower their fees and agreeing to film a cameo in Spy Kids 2.

At its best, this film strikes a mood that too few other films successfully convey: the dark night of the soul, the violent ennui that many of us experience at some stage in life. The opening and closing sequences of Apocalypse Now, Ben hiding in the basement in Night of the Living Dead, and Harvey Keitel’s slow hooker dance to “Pledging My Love” in Bad Lieutenant are a few other examples of scenes where the director, director of photography, scriptwriter, and actor conspire to strike the same tone. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind explores that dark, complicated mood from beginning to end.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is the motion picture trifecta: it is at once a successful dark comedy, an eerily accurate recreation of a specific moment in American history, and a suspenseful Cold War spy film. How many films manage to be successful at even ONE thing? Why was this movie such a flop?

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is THE unsung masterpiece of the early 2000s.


  1. A new unopened Blu-ray copy of this movie is sitting on my kevyip pile (bought it cheap a few weeks ago). After Rockwell blew my mind in "Seven Psychopaths" I've been looking for an excuse to watch this, and you've just given me one. This would make a great double-bill with either Clooney's "Good Night and Good Luck" (which is awesome because David Strathairn rules) and/or Redford's "Quiz Show" as post-"Network" intellectual attempts to cover the same ground "Confessions..." does, but in entirely different and stimulating ways.

  2. My guess why it was a flop is that Miramax was pushing Chicago and Gangs of New York at the same time this movie was released. They thought those two movies had a better shot at awards. Also, Confessions is not multiplex friendly so it probably didn't catch with audiences in limited release and had bad buzz going into wide release. That being said, I like the movie and I would watch it over Chicago or Gangs of New York any day.

  3. I like this movie quite a bit, but what I've taken away from this more than anything is that Patrick staged this as a high school theater production. Is there video for this? I mean, that must have been the coolest high school theater troupe ever.

  4. How good is this movie? It's one of the very few movies where I like Julia Roberts' performance and completely in a non-ironic way (ironic way would include Steel Magnolias where at least her character dies; non-ironic would be her delightful jerk in My Best Friend's Wedding).