Doing the gameshow impresario and “unauthorized autobiographer” one better, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” advances Chuck Barris’ tall tale of his double life as a TV producer and CIA assassin several degrees further and deeper, resulting in a powerful and creative film. In much the same way thesp-turned-helmer John Malkovich applied his experience with strong directors to make his fine debut film, “The Dancer Upstairs,” first-timer George Clooney has absorbed his time with the Coen brothers, David O. Russell and partner Steven Soderbergh to create an enveloping cinematic world that only rarely teeters into excess or self-seriousness. Repping a genuine breakthrough perf by a galvanizing Sam Rockwell as Barris, pic will play best as a well-supported cult film with limited mass appeal, pointing to a longer ancillary than theatrical run.
Since the book’s 1984 publication, literalists who have swallowed whole Barris’ wildest claims — not only his exploits as a killer for the Company, but his harrowing time trying to avoid being killed by a concerted KGB plot — seem to have missed that the book is marbled with self-fictionalizing. What’s immediately clear in the first moments of the film is how Clooney and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman have wisely read Barris’ account as a man taking liberties with his own life, and thus they feel free to take even further liberties. Now, the movie’s Chuck is naked, alone and sickly in a 1981 New York hotel room, staring at the boob tube, ignoring the entreaties of longtime love Penny (Drew Barrymore), on the other side of the locked door, to take him home to L.A.
With brief snippets of v.o. narration delivered by Rockwell in a groggy semi-whisper as a kind of narrative underscore, pic cleanly and amusingly covers previous decades, including Chuck’s nasty formative sexual experience as a boy with his sister’s friend; his failing to make out with dates as a teen; his up-and-down first stab at a TV career at NBC in the mid-’50s; his experience with Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” including penning hit tune “Palisades Park” for the show and his quietly comic first encounter with Penny.
When Chuck seems to succeed in pitching ABC on “The Dating Game,” “Confessions” reaches the end of its innocence, and suddenly and unexpectedly turns left, down shadowy alleys. The guide for this journey is CIA spook and handler Jim Byrd (Clooney), who appeals to Chuck’s taste for danger and recruits him into the ranks of spies.
“Confessions” shows an astonishing range of photographic and editing effects that surpass any of Soderbergh’s past work, and lenser Newton Thomas Sigel’s particular contribution to the movie’s seductive powers can’t be overestimated. One of the cleverest and subtlest gambits is to depict Chuck’s secret life as mostly a series of adventures in chilly, snowy conditions — a literal Cold War — that greatly helps contrast with the warm, aqua look of ’60s SoCal, where the explosive success of “Dating Game,” “The Newlywed Game” and other relationship gameshows turns Chuck into a producing powerhouse.
If the film never quite succeeds in conveying the full impact of Barris’ Hollywood heyday, and if Penny’s wedlock entreaties grow wearisome, there’s compensation with the deepening complexities of the spy games, which come to be dominated as much by sultry, dangerous-looking CIA gal Patricia (Julia Roberts) as by the no-nonsense Byrd. The superb soundtrack and inspired song selections (augmented by Alex Wurman’s grim, basso piano scoring), identify each spook by music — Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” for Patricia, the Who’s “Won’t Be Fooled Again” for Byrd –adding texture.
After what seems in retrospect a miscalculation to film Chuck’s first hit in Mexico in the same, urine-toned imagery as Soderbergh’s Mexican sequences in “Traffic,” the rest of Chuck’s secret life plays notes of both the absurd and melancholic, sustaining a funny, unsettling paranoid style a la Richard Condon.
Still, “Confessions” carries the strong stamp of Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation.”), with the structure imposed by a primary source bringing out his best artistic judgment. Kaufman continues his fascination with characters on the verge of total collapse, but this time benefits from material that eliminates the sort of solipsistic temptations that have seem to rep this writer’s Achilles Heel.
Fans of the book will eventually be as surprised and startled as nonreaders, not only by plot twists but an autumnal seriousness that concludes on the real Barris’ wizened face, offering the project a tacit nonverbal authorization.
A triumph of casting in all but one role, Clooney’s work with his actors has a strong theatrical tone. In his first major starring role, Rockwell displays a virtuoso’s range of emotions and states of mind with a keen instinct for going against expectation. In the role of an international woman of mystery reconceived for the movie from the ground up, Roberts has never looked so noirish and commandingly adult, suggesting a capacity for anything. Clooney’s Byrd is the actor’s ultimate less-is-more perf, with a delivery as flat and scary as the Soviet steppes at night.
Once again unable to age (as in “Riding in Cars With Boys”), Barrymore feels out of sorts here, playing one charming but unending note as the story’s innocent. As Chuck’s fellow spy in decline, Rutger Hauer makes a brief but strong impression.
Casting of gameshow contestants, including the wild and crazy “Gong Show” amateurs, is aces (including Brad Pitt’s and Matt Damon’s “Dating Game” cameos). Adding to the layers here, longtime Barris pals, including Jaye P. Morgan, Jim Lange and Clark, appear in frank talking-head cutaways.
So extensive and expressive is the combined work of Sigel, production designer James A. Bissell and costumer Renee April that “Confessions” evolves into a full-fledged cinematic parable on American innocence lost. Soderbergh’s vet editor Stephen Mirrione is an invaluable contributor to pic’s graceful yet adventurous shifts and rhythms, and the sound package (with aid of vet Kubrick sound man Edward Tise) has its own resonance.