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Bang the Gong Slowly


Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

George Clooney, USA, 2003

Rating: 2.8



Posted: January 27, 2003

By Laurence Station

Let's suppose that, just before sitting down to write his autobiography during the early '80s, Chuck Barris gazed deeply into the dark well of his soul and realized his life hadn't amounted to much. Sure, there was his work on American Bandstand with Dick Clark; penning Freddy "Boom-Boom" Cannon's hit tune "Palisades Park" in 1962; creating successful TV shows (The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game); and conceiving and hosting the campy amateur goof-fest The Gong Show. But what had Barris really accomplished? Was his legacy destined to be part of the rising arc of human history? Did he even matter in the greater scheme of things? Now, assuming the answer to these questions was a depressing "No, not really," what could Barris do to spice up his less than meaningful C.V.? Brainstorm! He could claim that while creating and producing hit game shows, he was also a contract assassin for the CIA. Taking out Cold War foes of Uncle Sam certainly seems more relevant than introducing no-talent wannabes for a living, right? Barris obviously thought so, for he worked that very angle into his book. Now, no one knows for sure whether Barris was a government operative or not, but how many shadow agents publish their exploits, and do so quite brazenly during the Cold War? He couldn't possibly have led a double life as a highly trained lethal weapon, could he?

George Clooney and the rest of the crew adapting Barris' autobiography take this incredible claim at face value. According to the film, he most certainly was. Barris (well-played by Sam Rockwell) is at a low point when Confessions opens, naked and unwashed, holed up in a sleazy New York hotel. All of his shows have been cancelled, and he's no longer welcome in the spy game. His self-loathing prevents him from even opening the door for his stultifyingly patient longtime girlfriend Penny (Drew Barrymore). In short, Chuck's hit rock bottom. What better time to reflect on the sum total of his existence? Cue flashbacks to: Barris working his way through the entertainment industry; his recruitment by mysterious CIA agent Jim Byrd (a grim, mustachioed Clooney); his adventures in Cold War hotspots with an alluring fellow spy (a chilly but sexy Julia Roberts); and eventually, cracking up as paranoia and flagging television ratings overtake him.

The trick for first time director Clooney and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman lies in reconciling the two halves of Barris' (real or imagined) double life during the 1960s and '70s, his most high profile and successful period. Having public figure Barris trot the globe to commit murder (even with signature fedora slung low) seems far-fetched. But there's room to exploit this aspect: How would a relatively well-known figure like Barris keep from being recognized or caught while dispatching undesirables for the U.S. government? Unfortunately, such ready-made dramatic tension is undercut by cheap sight gags (Barris holding a gun to the back of a Dating Game contestant's head while on a mission) or ignored altogether. There's never any sense that Barris is worried about being found out. He goes about his entertainment and wet work professions as if there's nothing the least bit incongruous between the two. No one questions Barris' frequent trips abroad, least of all Penny, with whom he shares a house. (Though clever justification is made that those Dating Game trips to "exotic" Eastern Bloc-controlled cities were really just an excuse for chaperone Barris to carry out his nefarious missions.) It's as if Barris is such a wild and crazy guy and keeps such irregular hours that no one is ever able to get a fix on him long enough to wonder what he does in his spare time.

It doesn't help that Barris comes across as unlikable, annoying, needy and infatuated with the prospect of his own notoriety. He's not someone audiences are inclined to root for. And the fanciful conceit that he's able to so effortlessly create popular television programs while playing exciting cloak-and-dagger games on the side strains suspension of disbelief. Unreliable narrators run the risk of losing credibility before the intended audience has a chance to become fully engrossed in their stories. Between novice director Clooney's lack of rhythmic pacing, and the just-plain loathsome aspects of Barris' character, Confessions never gets off the ground.

Tellingly the best parts of the film derive from talking-head commentary on Barris provided by Dick Clark, Dating Game host Jim Lange and Gong Show mainstays Jaye P. Morgan, the Unknown Comic and Gene Gene the Dancing Machine. Here we get a glimpse of a broader -- albeit less flattering -- perspective on Barris that the fictional recreation lacks. Perhaps a documentary would have done a better job pinning him down, separating fact from myth. As it is, Confessions spoon-feeds us a self-aggrandizing myth, and it's difficult to shake the impression that this myth was created as a way of staving off the most horrible of fates: being gonged off of the biggest game show of all -- Life.

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