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Confessions of a Dangerous Mind By Matt Singer
Imagined conversation overheard walking out of screening of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind:
Viewer #1: “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a biography movie!” Viewer #2: “No, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a spy movie!” Viewer #1: “It’s a biography movie!” Viewer #2: “No, it’s a spy movie!”
I took these loud and surprisingly impressionable people aside and silenced them with a “Calm down you two, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a biography AND a spy movie!” Well it is; an ambitious mix of genres depicted in a rainbow of blurry neon (though, as I’ll get to later, one aspect is better than the other). George Clooney certainly didn’t pace himself on his feature debut like Denzel Washington, he went all-out on a wild, time-jumping story fashioned from Chuck Barris’ “unauthorized autobiography” by Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation).
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Barris claims, or claimed at one point in his life, that while he was creating timelessly lame television classics like “The Dating Game” and “The Gong Show” he was assassinating Communists to protect the freedom of the U.S.A. Whether or not this actually happened is certainly up for debate. The movie, on the other hand, takes the hitman aspect as stone cold fact - where it could have been played off as Fight Club delusion or Mr. Magoo boobhood, Clooney and Kaufman let Barris be a real spy; and a pretty good one at that. I tend to suspect Barris made all this stuff up after his life hit rock-bottom - depicted in the film in all its naked, bearded glory - but I’m more than willing to suspend my disbelief.
Confessions is a fun movie, but a complex one. While Clooney could have turned this stuff into a hip, mainstream affair, he kept it way out in left field where his buddy Steven Soderbergh, and former collaborators like David O. Russell and the Coen Brothers like to dwell. Barris as played by Sam Rockwell, a great but unknown actor despite roles in Galaxy Quest and Charlie’s Angels, is not a likable guy. He’s a sex-addict, in love with the women but afraid of commitment -- who else would create a show that satirizes the “dating games” we play and proves that spouses will sell each other out for the chance to win a new refrigerator? He is so convinced that his life is meaningless if he does not make some sort of all-important contribution that he allows himself to be talked into the CIA by Jim Byrd (Clooney), and then can’t handle the post-traumatic stress. He has an alarming tendency to walk around naked (Rockwell’s ass gets more screentime than his director’s did in Solaris). It’s a testament to the real Barris’ attitude that he likes this movie so much, even though it portrays him in such a frequently negative life. Perhaps he is so happy to see his life made into a movie, physical evidence that his achievements and failures have some sort of significance, that he would have been happy if they had turned him into a child pornographer.
The film, shot by Newton Thomas Siegel, is a mix of colors and styles that bears more than a passing resemblance to Soderbergh’s body of work; some scenes look sandblasted like the Mexican parts of Traffic, others have the cold steel blue of Detroit in Out of Sight (Soderbergh is an executive producer). The kaleidoscope effect is one of the few that might suggest Barris made the whole thing up; we watch his exploits through a distorted lens that suggests what we see might not be entirely authentic.
I liked the movie, but I admit I was thrown off by certain elements, which give the finale the air of a bad psychedelic trip. And if the individual moments are very strong, some of the pacing could be tighter, and the film tends to wander a little when Barris goes on spy missions, spending too much time sitting around waiting for things to happen (Julia Roberts, in a small role as a gorgeous spy, is mostly wasted). But I am left remembering the things that made me laugh, the groovy visuals, and the oddly contented feeling I experienced when walking out of a theater. I would like to see the film again. And to stop overhearing imaginary conversations in movie theater hallways.