Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (***½)

Posted on February 2nd, 2003 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

Where to begin with this one. First of all, I was a faithful viewer of The Gong Show, created by Chuck Barris. I thought it was hilarious. For those of you who don’t know the show, the shtick was that rather ordinary people of (usually) limited talent would come onstage and perform their act, which could be anything from eating a popsicle in a lascivious manner to performing some (quite good) jug band music, and anything in between (and beyond) that you can think of. Picture Letterman’s Stupid Human Tricks extended to a half-hour show (coincidentally Letterman was a Gong Show judge at one point). Chuck Barris (Chuckie Baby) was the emcee, and there was a panel of three minor celebrities who would either a) “gong” the contestant, which indicated that their act was no longer bearable or b) give the act a score. At the end of the show the contestant with the most points won a few bucks.

There are those who felt that The Gong Show mocked or humiliated the contestants, but unless you lived under a rock you knew that it was quid pro quo…you did your stupid/embarrassing/pathetic “act” and Chuckie Baby would put you on the air for your 37 seconds of fame. It was win-win and was done with such enthusiasm and self-awareness that it reached surreal comedic proportions. I’ll stop talking about The Gong Show after you read this quote which sums up everything I loved about the show and Chuck Barris…this is Chuckie Baby introducing some random act:

“And our next act says he’s only semi-professional…which is great…because we’re only quasi-interested.”

Now to the movie — Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is George Clooney’s directorial debut. Yes, *that* George Clooney. The George Clooney. My respect for his talent and intelligence keeps growing. Selecting this movie for his first shot at directing was dangerous and brilliant. This concept is NOT a guaranteed winner. Chuck Barris and The Gong Show are, at best, a distant memory to today’s movie viewers, remembered with fondness by some and disdain by others, if even remembered. The script is adapted from Barris’ autobiography, in which…

********** SPOILERS AHEAD **********

…he claims that, along with being the inventor/producer of The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show, he was also a hitman for the CIA, and killed 33 people, using his trips around the world as ‘chaperone’ to show winners as cover. Well, that’s just bizarre. Whether or not it’s true, it’s just weird and bizarre and absurd. And unbelievable. Sort of. But, why did they send their contestants to places like West Berlin and Helsinki as prizes? Why would Barris, the high-powered producer of multiple TV shows, take time out of his schedule to chaperone these schlubs on their trips? I do not know the answers to these questions but I do find them interesting.

And so, apparently, did Clooney. His first great move as a director was insisting that Sam Rockwell play Chuck Barris. I first saw Rockwell as Guy Fleegman, the unknown, hilarious, and constantly-imperiled crew member in Galaxy Quest, and next saw him as the head bad guy in Charlie’s Angels, where his chameleon-like shift from good guy to bad guy was astonishing. In COADM he plays Barris to perfection. The recreated scenes on the set of The Gong Show are uncannily and excruciatingly realistic representations of the real show. Rockwell also conveys the emotions of a semi-reluctant hitman in a moving and plausible way.

Drew Barrymore does an excellent job as Barris’ ongoing love interest, and Clooney plays his role (as Barris’ CIA handler) with understated non-George-Clooney-ness, and does not detract from Rockwell/Barris as the star and focus of the movie.

The story is as described above – one thread of the movie chronicles the well-known and true story of Chuckie Baby’s beginnings as a network page, through the creation of his game shows and on to their ultimate cancellations. A separate thread chronicles the possibly true/possibly fictional/definitely strange story of his recruitment and activities as a globe-trotting CIA hitman. Both stories are dramatic, funny, well-told, and well acted.

I struggled with myself about writing this next part, because it seems self-serving, but it is nonetheless accurate. When I used to watch The Gong Show, I noticed that there were times when Barris seemed transfixed as if having an out-of-body experience. And times when he would look down at the floor and stare with a look of such sadness that I remember it to this day. And times when he would stare out at the camera with what can only be described as a thousand-yard-stare. These would be momentary flashes, and then his face would light up with his trademark grin, and the band would signal a flourish, and the show would go on. But I always remembered these aspects of his hosting persona, and had always harbored a minor curiosity about the man, and a curiosity about these un-game-show-host-like behaviors. I’m not implying that these remembered behaviors support his being a hit man, but they were certainly noteworthy and possibly relevant.

All in all, this is a solid debut for Clooney, and a very entertaining movie. I attended the film with three other people, none of whom were Gong Show enthusiasts, and they all also loved the film. It is surreal and funny, well acted and well directed. I can’t wait to see what Clooney and/or Rockwell and/or Barris do next.

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