CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND (director: George Clooney; screenwriter: Charlie Kaufman/from the book by Chuck Barris; cinematographer: Newton Thomas Sigel; editor: Stephen Mirrione; music: Alex Wurman; cast: George Clooney (Jim Byrd), Sam Rockwell (Chuck Barris), Drew Barrymore (Penny), Julia Roberts (Patricia Watson), Rutger Hauer (Keeler), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Debbie), Jerry Weintraub (Larry Goldberg), David Hirsch (Freddie Cannon), Rachelle Lefevre (Tuvia, Age 25), Chelsea Ceci (Tuvia, Age 8); Runtime: 113; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Andrew Lazar; Miramax Films; 2002)
“It’s deftly written by Charlie Kaufman.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
George Clooney does a fine job as he brings to the screen in his directing debut the chilling autobiographical story about the smarmy Chuck Barris, who lowered the bar on the television medium to an all-time low by producing in the late 1960s such popular but empty shows as “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game,” and in the 1970s the depraved “Gong Show.” By the ’80s the rest of TV land caught up with his poor taste and most of TV now looks as if it could be a Chuck Barris production. Sam Rockwell, with the simpering grin of the cat who swallowed the canary, shines in the starring role as the ambitious and jerky Chuck Barris who flees his unhappy family home in Philadelphia, becomes a page for NBC, and plots to succeed in the new medium of television. His first success comes from his New York job where he’s sent to Philly to monitor Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” show for ‘payola’ and with Dick’s help in the early ’60s gets the hit song he wrote “Palisades Park” sung by Freddy Cannon on the program. This is followed by dejection after ABC top executive (Weintraub) turned down his “Dating Game” pilot for the even more obnoxious “Hootenanny.” During this time he’s mysteriously recruited by the shady Jim Byrd (George Clooney) as a private contractor hit man for the CIA because he fits the profile. When Barris seems puzzled about what he has to do and why he was chosen, he’s told by Byrd to “Think of it as a hobby. You’re an assassination enthusiast.” He seems to have taken to that hobby, as he reports that he committed 33 assassinations while by day he steadily worked his television gig after “The Dating Game” was finally aired. After his rapid success in the TV world of schlock, he lived in Hollywood in a posh home with the obligatory swimming pool and partook in the noted open sex lifestyle befitting a celebrity of his stature.
It’s deftly written by Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich“/”Adaptation“). His screenplay proves to be about a shadowy government operation that helps the legendary showman lead a double life and gain confidence in himself as he learns to enjoy killing; the script acts to expose both TV and the spy game as part of America’s pop culture that respects more than anything else the poor taste of the American public and gives them what they want on both accounts.
The film opens at the time of Barris’s nervous breakdown in 1981 and the cancellation of all his TV shows, including his smash hit “The Gong Show.” He now becomes a morbid has-been, has a scraggy beard, is self-loathing, and remains naked while holed up alone in a dumpy New York hotel watching television, a just punishment for all the irritating programs he presented to the American public. Because of this bitter end he writes his life story as a way of justifying his uncreative and unfulfilling life, which is probably fictional in any case. Drew Barrymore brings out the best in the role of Barris’ hippie free love girlfriend, Penny, and later loyal wife, despite the bizarre antics and extra-marital affairs of her wealthy television producer hubby. In the 1981 scene she’s trying to get him to leave the hotel and return with her to Hollywood.
The other sexy woman in Barris’s life is a shady CIA operative named Patricia Watson (Julia Roberts) he encounters in Helsinki, a place he visits to do a CIA killing assignment as he chaperones his “Dating Game” winners on their prize vacation. Patricia offers him not only sex but a quote from Nietzsche: “The man who despises himself still respects himself as he who despises.” This seems to sum up Barris’ low opinion he has of himself and others, and is about as deep as this film cares to dig. Throughout the film are nebulous comments by celebs who knew Barris such as Jim Lange, Dick Clark, Jaye P. Morgan, and Gene Gene the Dancing Machine. They add nothing to our knowledge of him.
I found “Dangerous Mind” engaging in a superficial way and entertaining in a perverse way. It did not win me over to the main character or get me to even feel in the least bit sympathetic with his dilemma, It’s Rockwell’s film, as he’s in almost every scene and hams it up without hamming it up too much. He plays the parts of a career killer and a superficial TV personality with enough vigor so that he’s charming but never enough to gain our trust. He makes us wonder how creepy he really he is without fully despising him, which requires a nifty bit of acting. Drew Barrymore is also a good casting decision, as she’s the only one who is likable. While Cooney’s main method of directing is to have an active camera. All indications are that he has a good eye for detail, but his acting lets us down. His spy role is flat. His bushy mustache and uniformed CIA garb give him an ominous look, but the dialogue didn’t hold up. Julia Roberts is miscast as the double agent with a penchant for wearing floppy hats, as her character never surfaced. There’s an amusing cameo by Brad Pitt and Matt Damon on “The Dating Game,” as we see them as Bachelors 1 and 2 while the young lady contestant chooses the nerdy Bachelor No. 3.
REVIEWED ON 2/7/2003 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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