Monday, March 3, 2014

Review: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

I've wanted to see the 2002 Sam Rockwell vehicle Confessions of a Dangerous Mind since about the time it came out, but never got around to it until now. If I were going to do a tweet-review of this, it would be "Way darker than I expected; don't watch it if you're in a misanthropic mood."

Maybe part of the reason I put off this movie was because I knew basically nothing about protagonist Chuck Barris, and very little about The Gong Show, which he created and hosted. Fortunately, the script is careful enough to remain accessible to those of us with limited background knowledge of the world of '60s-'70s game shows.

There's another preconceived notion I had that turned out to be inaccurate, though in this case it's not such good news: I had a hunch that this would be one of those movies of which I could say, "You've never seen a movie quite like this," but in fact—despite its many quirks and its undoubtedly bizarre subject matter—I feel like I have.

It's basically a biopic of Barris, as told by Barris—or more accurately, a film translation of his autobiography. That's its structure and feel, and maybe part of why that disappointed me a little is because I was hoping for more of a meditation on the conflict between show business and reality.

See, Barris claims to have been a CIA assassin during the heyday of his TV career. Plot-wise, the movie takes this at face value, though always with a tonal tongue in its figurative cheek. Once or twice—including, notably, in a very early scene—we get a grim look at Barris during what appears to be his rock-bottom phase, holed up in a filthy room, with moist eyes and a hobo beard.

These scenes are about the only extent to which Confessions engages directly with the aforementioned conflict between show business and reality. All of the film's other "aha moments" of the kind we expect from biopics—like the scene with the swimming beauty at the Playboy mansion—concern themselves with Barris the person, not so much Barris the personification.

That wouldn't be a problem if not for the occasionally overwrought visual style, which seems to be telling me "Yes, we are making a profound statement about the reality/showbiz divide," even when they're really not. Maybe what the movie really needed was to focus more on The Gong Show (which seems like a topic that could easily fuel a whole movie). Maybe, by connecting his uniquely ironic show to his assassin fantasy more closely, the movie might have said something about show business in general, rather than feeling like a gonzo portrait of a mentally disturbed individual.

But enough of the could-have-beens. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind never ceases to be watchable and engaging, and the cast has a lot to do with that. Rockwell strikes just the right balance of showmanship and pathos; George Clooney is amusingly deadpan as his CIA contact; even Drew Barrymore's somewhat irritating character serves a key purpose in painting the full picture of this man. Fans of well-acted, character-driven dramedies will find much to like here, and fans of Sam Rockwell would be remiss if they skipped it.

Star Score: 3.5 out of 5

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