George Clooney makes his directorial debut with a repetitious conceptual comedy
Near the end of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, TV entertainer Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) confesses to his new bride (Drew Barrymore) that he’s also had a secret career as an assassin for the C.I.A. She pauses in disbelief and sweet naïveté and then bursts forth with the heartiest and friendliest horselaugh imaginable.
That terrific horse laugh is Barrymore’s best moment in the movie, and it is also one of the few times in which this perplexing and strangely giddy film seems to swing free of its own fancifully convoluted baloney. The confessions of the title are Barris’ own zestily preposterous memoirs, and their rendition on film, scripted by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) and directed by George Clooney (who also plays a key supporting role), doggedly revels in an air of put-ons, shaggy-dog stories, fraudulent dramas and paradoxical in-jokes.
The real-life Barris, now a silver-haired senior citizen, appears here as one of the documentary-style talking heads offering up comments on his career as creator of TV’s The Dating Game and The Gong Show. The resulting similarities to Warren Beatty’s Reds are surely just one more sign of all the spoofing going on here, but confusions over fantasy and reality—or, better yet, entertainment and history—are Dangerous Mind’s strongest claims to significance and coherence of some sort.
Whichever way you take it, Barris’ nutty memoir is about a life spinning out of control, and the impression that the well-documented facts of his life as an entertainer are even less credible than the account of his exploits as a C.I.A. agent just may be part of the point. The conceptualist comedy of all this does not, however, make for a uniformly entertaining two hours.
Clooney, in his directorial debut, seems good with actors but erratic on the overall presentation. And while Rockwell makes a strong impression in the central role—a brilliant guy’s version of a nut job, a nut job’s version of a brilliant guy—the actor and the movie wear out their best moves with excessive repetition. And audiences who worry over the film’s whimsical attitude toward life-and-death realities will find it worse than wearying.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is at its best when it’s indulging in world-weary mockery. And in that respect it’s appropriate that it includes a role in which Julia Roberts seems, for once, perfectly at home—a lethal, B-movie Mata Hari.