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Grade: C-Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

Director: George Clooney

Stars: Sam Rockwell, George Clooney, Drew Barrymore

Release Company: Miramax

MPAA Rating: R

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George Clooney: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind


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"Almost any American would sell out their spouse for a refrigerator-freezer or a lawnmower they could ride around in."
So says Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) of his television brainchild, The Newlywed Game. Also the “creative” mind behind The Dating Game, Barris is most well known for hosting The Gong Show, the last of this trio of lowest-common-denominator mean-spirited television shows. The unfortunate side effect of the success of these shows is that they have spawned other cheaply budgeted banalities like Jerry Springer. But what about Barris himself? After his cult success from the mid-sixties through the 70s, what has he been up to?

If we are to believe Barris' autobiography, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and director George Clooney's film adaptation, he has been assassinating Latin American revolutionaries and other enemies of the United States as part of C.I.A. operations. Ludicrous? Perhaps. His girlfriend Penny (capably played by Drew Barrymore) thinks the concept hilarious, laughing hysterically when Barris attempts to 'fess up. But stranger things have happened, and as his control supervisor Jim Byrd (Clooney) tells him, "It's the perfect cover." Who could imagine loony Barris killing some thirty-three people James Bond-style?

To bring this to the screen, George Clooney directs his first feature, borrowing heavily on the visual and narrative styles of the Coen brothers (O Brother, Where Art Thou!) and Stephen Soderbergh (Solaris and Oceans Eleven), and Charlie Kaufman writes the script, borrowing on absurdist ideas from Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Clooney has more at stake since Kaufman has previous writing success; unfortunately, the script is the weakest part of the film. It comes across as little more than a cutesy gimmick without a central focus, providing a portrait of a shallow character who undergoes no changes or epiphanies, unless you count the obvious—that Barris realizes that his life has been pointless, so he needs to find a way to make himself appear heroic.

Somewhat more entertaining that most of the generic junk films released for wide release during the pre-Oscar nomination weeks, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is far less compelling than the trailer indicates—a film that you may not immediately "Gong" while watching, but will slap your forehead the next day, wondering why you spent two hours at the theater. You could have stayed home and watched Survivor.

It's not totally a waste, however. Rockwell parodies Barris flawlessly during the Gong Show sequences and plays the character as well has any actor could. Playing a hedonistic airhead, primarily interested in pursuing his next lay, Rockwell has the difficult task of making his character palatable even when parading around butt-naked in several scenes. The C.I.A. connection provides Hitchcockian potential—an ordinary Everyman suddenly thrust into a surreal underworld solely because "he fits the profile." His dysfunctional upbringing results in extremely low self-esteem, so he remains unattached emotionally, yet has deep longing to succeed—the driving force behind his television productions. That the C.I.A. could delve as deeply into Barris' background is unnerving, considering such details as his masturbation habits.

The film has a few worthy laughs as well. Anyone who ever watched The Gong Show will find reappearance by Gene, the Dancing Machine and the Unknown Comic nostalgic, and the funniest moment of the film involves clever cameo appearances by Ocean's Eleven alumni Brad Pitt and Matt Damon. On the other hand, Julia Roberts becomes a candidate for the worst casting of the year, as her tongue-in-cheek performance as a C.I.A. agent is plastic and unconvincing.

Of course, the subject matter makes it difficult to really fall in love with the film. Barris' television shows were designed to exploit the worst of human nature, making it very difficult to relate favorably to the protagonist. After all, his creation reveals a great deal about his underlying character. The idea that Barris gets involved with the dirty work of the C.I.A. seems more like justice than worthy of sympathy, so perhaps the film does work at that level—allowing us to understand the despondency of the pathetic figure we witness in the opening scenes, holed away naked and suffering continuing self-doubts in a cheap New York City hotel.

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