In between Ocean’s movies fun, and before he decided to direct a bunch of disappointing films, George Clooney got his directorial feet wet with a movie tabbed as a disappointment but that is also highly entertaining. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind didn’t fare well at the box office, but you of course know that sometimes this means almost nothing. A biography film covering the life of a game show host who may or may not have been a spy sounds interesting, but it does not jump out in terms of commercial appeal, especially considering star Sam Rockwell’s somewhat unknown status at the time. We’ll get into the truthiness of Chuck Barris’ story more later, but for now accept that Rockwell is wonderful as the eccentric, insecure “spy.”
Clooney also seems to have had fun behind the camera, something that can’t really be said for some of his other works like Good Night, and Good Luck. He wields creative power well here, bouncing between times, frames, and various ambiances — from the bright lights of Barris’ shows to the dim corners of his CIA misadventures. In front of his camera, Clooney is his usual smooth self, until CIA mishaps push his life towards chaos. One can only dream of a day when the CIA is filled with George Clooneys, though even he succumbs to its submerged conflicts. Like Danny Ocean, this role affords Clooney some space to talk down to a newbie (see: Matt Damon’s Linus in Ocean’s) while giving the impression he knows far more than he lets on.
Where Rockwell thrives, in all of his excellent performances, is in his zaniness. Here, his Chuck is consumed by sex and fame and success, and his notions of these vital life forces become dangerously distorted. Drew Barrymore plays Barris’ main love interest, though his interest in love is perhaps non-existent and at best inconsistent. I can’t claim to be the biggest Barrymore fan, but she does a serviceable job as Penny, closest of all people to Chuck but still largely unaware of his motivations and origins. Besides her, Clooney tosses out Michael Cera (channeling some George Michael…), Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and Julia Roberts, with only Roberts playing a significant role. The other big names may be hard to find, but they’re there, reminding us just how cool Clooney and his connections are. Rutger Hauer also pops up, in a more substantial role, as a fellow spy showing Chuck some of the inescapable ropes, telling him that upon your first kill, “You become their sadness,” lamenting their status as “condemned” men because of their behavior in the dark corners of the world.
This dark sentiment colors much of the film’s climax, and it leaves one wondering just how Clooney aimed to portray Barris, and how Barris sought to represent himself. For one thing, we see a lot of Sam Rockwell’s butt, so that may say something, or not. Also, Rockwell proves that he can dance, sort of. Clooney depicts Barris as creepy and needy and somewhat morally deplorable, but one must wonder what Clooney thinks about the man’s spy story. The CIA denied Barris’ claims of being a spy (of course they did!), but I for one like to keep my options open, and imagining the story as true augments the narrative. The film is marked by duality, by illusions and lies to selves and others, and Barris ends up desperate to share his story, terrified that he will die alone and afraid, known only as a shallow television figurehead.
The plot twists and turns as it jumps between Chuck’s two lives. They become indistinguishable to Chuck, but for viewers these jumps may be where the movie lost its bite. The domestic side of Chuck’s life seems a bit off, a bit detached, though one could argue that’s exactly how it was in reality, and exactly how Clooney wanted it to appear. Putting the CIA undertones aside, the story comes down to Chuck facing his mortality, his crippling ordinariness, realizing that, “When you are young, your potential is infinite. You might do anything, really. You might be Einstein. You might be DiMaggio. Then you get to an age where what you might be gives way to what you have been. You weren’t Einstein. You weren’t anything. That’s a bad moment.” Considering this thought, it seems Clooney doesn’t really care about the truth of the CIA aspect of the story, instead zeroing in on Barris’ fear of remaining unknown, and how that fear fits into the American pop-culture psyche, the same one that seeks to know every detail of the ins and outs of the lives of people like Clooney himself. Clooney parallels Barris’ killing and his superficial game shows, suggesting a sort of death for television as well as for Chuck’s victims, brought about by fame-hungry deceivers willing to do anything to get in front of the camera.
Still relevant, possibly true, definitely worth your time.