There was a time, not so very long ago, when liberal use of the term "making whoopee" on television airwaves signaled the decline of western civilization. Could The Newlywed Game truly lead us to the depths of hell? TV critics of the '70s were pretty sure the boob tube could get no worse, and the man to blame was Chuck Barris, who also produced The Dating Game, The $1.98 Beauty Show, and most infamous of all, The Gong Show. Barris had come up with the concept that regular people would willingly humiliate themselves on national television if they had a chance at winning a free refrigeratorand that audiences would enjoy witnessing this humiliation. He was right on both counts, which is why today we can watch complete imbeciles eat animal penises on America's "quality television network," NBC.
Perhaps the critics weren't so wrong about our decline after all. But in contrast to the dark nights of the soul airing almost daily on the FOX network's current "reality" programming, Barris' game shows were harmless bits of fluff with nary a severed reproductive organ in sight. Instead, Barris delivered a lot of bad jokes, bad singing, and bad dancingthings that weren't terribly original to television, to be sure, but were never before so brazenly utilized without apology. Barris was one of the first populizers of trash culture as entertainment, though probably not with the same sense of irony as, say, John Waters. To blame Barris as the originator of our current sad state of reality TV is rather unfair; there will always be cretins and fools on television, and he never exploited them as cruelly and dishonestly as today's executives do without qualm. Oh, but he did murder a lot of people.
Game-show host by day, contract killer for the CIA by night. That's the premise of Barris' vastly entertaining bio-pic, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, based on his "unauthorized autobiography" of the same name. Could it possibly be true? Who cares? In the hands of ace screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich), Barris' tall tale becomes a fever-dream of armpit-level aspirations, self-loathing in the face of success, junk TV, and undercover "wet" operations for the U.S. government. George Clooney marks his directorial debut by infusing Confessions with every trick in the book: ever-changing film stocks, complicated camera shots, sudden flashbacks melding into the present-day narrative. And it all works wonderfully to create a film biography that is at turns an aching exploration of one's true worth, a tweaking of the public's appetite for crap entertainment, and a dip into psychotic self-delusions that may or may not be reality. Its a delight.
As stories go, Confessions' history of Barris' life is pretty simplejust a regular jerk who makes semi-good. We see Barris' sexually frustrated youth, his entry into New York's television industry, the germination of his game shows, and his recruitment and training by the CIA to be an international assassin. It happens all the time. Although Barris is not exactly hero material, his life affords us a view into our culture of mediocrity and how it's created. Clooney and Kaufman don't berate their subject so much as humorously expose it to the light. (Though there's one wonderful moment where Barris, now famous for hosting The Gong Show, is shown prowling at a Playboy mansion party where an alluring woman sexily intones: "I think you're the most insidious, despicable force in entertainment today. How dare you subject the rest of the world to your loathsome views of humanity, to mock some poor lonely people who are just craving a little attention in their lives?") The segments devoted to Barris' second career as a contract killer serve as permutations of his growing self-hatred. Shot in icy tones with heightened contrast, they look gritty yet are played as if scenes from a '60s spy moviewhich is perhaps how Barris sees them in his head. Julia Roberts, as a Cold War femme fatale, has more fun in her few scenes here than in her last decades' worth of hit movies. (She has probably one of the funniest lines in the movie during agasp!sex scene.)
Such disparate themes and approaches could've resulted in a large celluloid mess, but Confessions is brilliantly held together by the performance of Sam Rockwell. The guy's a natural, and here he at long last has a star-turning part to sink his teeth into, covering every emotion from elation to lust to existential doubt to homicidal rage. Although he doesn't have a leading man's face (that would be Clooney, who appears here as Barris' CIA handler), Rockwell has acting chops most mega-stars can only dream of. His Barris is not a terribly likable fellowin fact, he's mostly a horny schlub. But Rockwell creates a schlub who's aware of his own shortcomings and suffers for them, and that makes him sympathetic. (Aren't we all secretly afraid of our own personal mediocrity?)
By film's end, after several murders, canceled shows, and a nervous breakdown, you kind of hope that Barris will make a comeback with a new game show and that all will be well in his world again. Of course, that doesn't quite happen, which may leave some feeling that Confessions lacks a unified dénouement. But that's life and television.