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With: Sam Rockwell, George Clooney, Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts, Rutger Hauer, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jerry Weintraub, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon
Written by: Charlie Kaufman, based on the book by Chuck Barris
Directed by: George Clooney
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexual content and violence
Running Time: 114
Date: 12/31/2002

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Hit Parade

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Chuck Barris' autobiography Confessions of a Dangerous Mind has caused more speculation than autobiographies by many other, bigger, more talented celebrities. According to the book, Barris not only created "The Dating Game" and "The Gong Show" for television, but also worked as a hitman for a secret branch of the CIA.

Whether this is true or not frankly does not matter a whit. And even in a best-case scenario, Frida for example, it's still impossible to obtain 100% absolute truth. For the purposes of a new movie, all that matters, to quote Samuel Fuller, is a helluva good yarn.

Written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by George Clooney, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind stars Sam Rockwell as Chuck Barris, and he embodies the role with a kind of feverish impatience. This Barris knows he has great things waiting for him in his life and he can't stand waiting around for them to happen.

The film begins with Barris squirreled away in some miserable little hotel room, taking stock of his life and deciding to write the book. His beard has grown out, he's got a bit of a paunch, and he looks like the life has been sucked out of him.

The movie then flashes back to the humble beginnings, with Barris trying desperately to pitch original TV shows to the networks. He meets the love of his life, Penny (Drew Barrymore) after sleeping with her roommate; she chats with him while he stands naked behind the refrigerator door (Rockwell gets naked a lot). She flits in and out of his life, embracing whatever trend comes along. ("I'm a hippie now!" she gleefully announces after one of his trips.)

Finally Barris' ideas take off and "The Dating Game" is a big hit. Before long, a mysterious CIA agent, Jim Byrd (Clooney) turns up to offer Barris a new job. "You fit our profile," Byrd says. The plan is this: when the "Dating Game" contestants win, Barris will chaperone them on exotic trips to foreign locales, then slip away to perform a service for his country.

Director Clooney frames this epiphany in near darkness with the two figures standing mid-frame. Barris ponders for a moment and announces, "that could actually work."

In one of the movie's best jokes, the TV announcer informs the winners that they will be traveling to exotic East Berlin -- in the dead of winter, no less.

Later, Barris creates "The Gong Show," which was basically the 1970s version of "American Idol," except that someone with talent would occasionally appear. The show becomes huge success, but even Playboy bunnies at Hugh Hefner's mansion accuse Barris of rotting America's moral fiber.

As a first-time director, Clooney makes a huge visual impact, enlisting cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (The Usual Suspects, Three Kings) to help create the film's stellar look. Nearly every gorgeous Cinemascope shot is awash with vivid colors and shadows that separate certain characters or bring others together.

In this capacity, he's basically the opposite of Denzel Washington, whose recent debut Antwone Fisher virtually ignored filmic visuals in favor of strong performances. Clooney gets less from his actors, but he has an eye for casting, using his powerful friends from past films to help fill roles. Julia Roberts shines in a great small role as a sultry spy, and Matt Damon and Brad Pitt turn up in hilarious cameos as "Dating Game" losers.

Kaufman apparently had less trouble adapting this book than he did The Orchid Thief (see the recent Adaptation). He simply picked up where Barris left off: it doesn't matter what's true or what's fiction, as long as it makes a good story. Kaufman invents details for the film that do not appear in the book, such as Barris' real father being a psychotic killer and his mother dressing him in drag.

In-between scenes, the movie interviews real-life Barris associates like Dick Clark, Jaye P. Morgan, The Unknown Comic (Murray Langston) and Gene Gene the Dancing Machine (Gene Patton, who, in a horrible irony, has lost his legs). These folks are carefully not to reveal any hard facts about Barris one way or the other.

The movie ends, appropriately enough, with a shot of Barris himself and a line of dialogue best not repeated here. By the end, we still don't know what's true and what's not, but one thing is for sure: Barris looks a lot more comfortable holding a gun than hosting "The Gong Show." And that's show biz.

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