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2002, dir. George Clooney
113 min. Rated R.
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore, George Clooney, Michelle Sweeney.

Review by Noel Wood

It's a good thing that the studios hold off their big Oscar push movies for wide release, because January is generally the month reserved for the absolute rock-bottom movies of the year. Basically, anything the studios want you to foget in the long run is given first release in January, so that by the time they start putting their moneymakers out in the Spring, they'll be long-forgotten. When I checked the box office reports last week and realized the top three films in the United States were KANGAROO JACK, NATIONAL SECURITY, and JUST MARRIED, I started getting really worried about our society as a whole. Thankfully, I still had one movie to look forward to in wide release: the highly-anticipated directorial debut for George Clooney, the Chuck Barris biopic CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND.


I can't say I was disappointed in the film once finally given the opportunity to see it. For what it is, it's an entertaining movie, and does a pretty good job at accomplishing what it sets out to do. I'm really kind of confused on the critical analysis I'm seeing on the movie, however: Everyone seems hell-bent on giving the film 3 and a half stars and then spending paragraphs tearing it apart. It's like "we liked it, even though we found all these things wrong with it." As for me, I liked it, thought there were a few underwhelming moments, but overall was a success.

Chuck Barris, as we all know, is the televison producer who is responsible for many of the top shows of the 1960's and 1970's, most notably The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show. The movie chronicles his life in the television industry as well as his overcompensation for childhood obstacles by drowning himself in sexual pleasure. Of course, according to the Autobiography that this film is based on, Barris also led a secret double life, serving as an assassin for the CIA. In order to make his lives coordinate, he escorts his Dating Game winners to exotic locales like Finland and Berlin in order to knock off some targets. Along the way, he meets up with Patricia Watson, a CIA informant with whom he begins an affair with, all the while maintaining his relationship back home with the free-spirited Penny.

The first thing that irks me is the hordes of folks out there complaining that the movie was told as a straightforward story, without a lot of "what-if" type of effect. To hell with those people. I'm so tired of seeing the "what-if" let's-play-with-the-audience scenario that I found it refreshing to see this story get told as a straight-up biography including the whole CIA assassin plot as fact. As a matter of fact, I thought the interviews with real-live life associates of Chuck Barris only detracted from the story itself, because they were the only elements of doubt laid into the story. Charlie Kaufman, who wrote the screenplay, had just come off of one of the best trick-the-audience films in recent memory, ADAPTATION, so why would he bother keeping with the same type of tone for this one?


George Clooney fares well in his directorial debut, some of the things he does seem pedestrian while some moments of inspiration shine through. Sure, he's taken a cue from some of his previous collaborators, but when you've worked with the Coens and Soderberg, that's not really a bad thing. It's obvious that he subscribed to Soderberg's notion from TRAFFIC that it's always yellow in Mexico, that's for sure. Some of his shots are quite clever, the way he transposes certain scenes into one another as if they're in sync may seem like it came from the Hollywood Guide to Slick Directing 101, but it is actually effective here, because it's not overdone. Some funny scenarios created by effective blocking are there as well (both his first encounters with Penny and Patricia come to mind) and there are some individual shots that, in themselves, are breathtaking. I'm not sure how convincing the Barris-goes-crazy-and-holes-himself-in-front-of-the-TV-in-a-dark-hotel-room nonsense is. Cliches are no good, especially ones like this.

The movie seems to take effort not to preach too much, either. Barris is lambasted for being a peddler of filth to the lowest common denominator by the press, but really, is what he is doing so wrong? Fortunately, the film doesn't try to make that judgment for us. I guess with reality shows running amok and stuff like Jerry Springer taking over our airwaves in the last several years, the argument is just so tired that the filmmakers chose not to really push it. Good move, folks.

Sam Rockwell is the keystone in this all, because his performance as Barris is really spectacular. At first, we're not sure what to make of him; whether to like him or hate him, whether to pity him or scorn him. Rockwell is able to pull off the charm that got Barris where he did in the industry without overdoing it. By the time we get to his Gong Show days, we're seeing the same man we grew up watching on the tube. The resemblance is uncanny. Of course, I think I counted a dozen too many shots of Rockwell's bare ass for my tastes, which was a bit distracting, but that's neither here nor there. You can take that up with Mr. Clooney, I guess. Clooney himself is fine in a small role as the CIA recruiter who mentors Barris, and Rutger Hauer puts in a memorable but small performance as a fellow CIA operative. Julia Roberts and Drew Barrymore seemed to be sleepwalking through their roles, which could have partly been a result of the scripting of the roles themselves rather than the lack of effort on the parts of the actors. Patricia, Roberts' role, seems altogether unimportant in the grand scheme of things, save for a scene at the end that will likely conjure up memories of the Iocane powder sequence in THE PRINCESS BRIDE.


The overall effect I got from George Clooney's debut was that this is a director who grew up watching movies. What that implies is that while not everything was groundbreaking, he's harvested some of the best tricks of his mentors to pull off a style that's fun to watch and leaves nary a dull moment. I look forward to seeing what else he can do, and would welcome a second Clooney directorial effort in the near future. Oh, and maybe Sam Rockwell, who I've been a fan of ever since I saw him as the diamond in the rough from GLORY DAZE and later SAFE MEN, will start to get some real roles now. He's not likely to be in the running for an Oscar just yet, but there's hope.


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