Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
I’m not killing people… my future’s in television.
The true-ish story of Chuck Barris, who wrote pop songs, hosted games shows, and killed people for a living.
Why We Love It
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind came out of nowhere for me. It’s the type of movie that, considering how it did at the box office, you had to have a friend that loved it enough to rent it or (God forbid) buy the thing outright. That friend would then have to be confident enough in their taste to show a close friend a movie that a huge bulk of the population chose to ignore in theaters. Luckily, I had that friend.
Also luckily, that friend had a home entertainment center, so we were able to watch the calm madness of this movie in all the large spectacle it demands. Something necessary considering most people didn’t get that chance (or didn’t take it) when it was on the big screen. Because the look is incredible. Skipping between the faded technicolor of the 1950s through the natural hand-held camera work of the 1970s, George Clooney’s first time out as director is a reminder not really of the time Barris lived in, but in how television and movies portrayed the time Barris lived in. How television and movies from that time period look like today after they’ve been sitting in storage rooms long enough.
But beyond the on-point aesthetic of the mid-century (which is guaranteed to be cool no matter what), Clooney somehow found someone to inhabit that world that looked like he stepped right out of the time machine. Sam Rockwell is Chuck Barris. He’s a charming psychopath that has either murdered for our government or feels such a desperate need for attention that despite having wealth and notability, he has concocted one of the most ridiculous stories of the 20th century. A popular game show host uses the prize trips won by contestants as a cover to go assassinate targets. Genius.
From the start, the guy is a loser, grasping at straws with the women he views as objects and constantly wanting more (or believing he deserves more) than life is offering him. For most, that would manifest itself in acute depression or general unlikable, but Barris channels it into a struggling success and endless charm somehow.
Frenetic and constantly enjoyable to watch, Rockwell takes up most of the screen time, but doesn’t quite dominate every scene he’s in. His performance is so incredible because he plays ball, whether with Clooney as the lead operative recruiter Jim Byrd or with Julia Roberts as the smoky agent Patricia who’s ultimately playing the system against itself. Although the increasingly reprehensible behavior is fun to watch spiral out of control, it’s far more interesting to watch when Rockwell reigns himself in to paint a fearful portrait of Barris’s weaknesses. And that performance didn’t even come near an Oscar voting pool, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t belong amongst the ranks of Adrien Brody in The Pianist or Nicolas Cage in Adaptation from that year. Rockwell is absolutely incredible – and for most of us, we were getting to see it for the first time. An introduction to a rising star.
Speaking of Adaptation, the script from Charlie Kaufman may not have been strictly adhered to (to the point where he was greatly disappointed in the end result), but the work that ended up on screen is fantastic. By treating Chuck Barris and his possibly grand lie as if it’s the God’s Honest Truth, Kaufman created a biography that everyone on the planet can assume is fictional, but not a single one of them can prove it. According to Barris, this is how his life went down, and there are very few biographies as strange and disarming as this one. It’s like a Hunter S. Thompson acid trip that happens when you’re stone sober. There’s humor and life and darkness, and I only want to see Barris get deeper into shit the more it goes along because it’s just that entertaining.
What’s more, the element of having the real life Barris alongside The Unknown Comic, Dick Clark, and other figures from that life as talking heads carries the story along in a way that could have been choppy but ends up being perfect. It’s a grounding mechanism for how unreal everything on screen gets. Just as Barris becomes more surreal, a real person comes along to remind us that a lot of this (and possibly all of it) happened.
Over all, it’s incredibly fun, the camera work is innovative while being a clear homage to work from greats like Lumet and Nichols, Rockwell knocks it out of the park, and the story that’s created is fantastical to the point of disbelief while saving just a hint of credibility that will always make you wonder whether a pop culture icon of the past has tax-paid blood on his hands.
Moment We Fell in Love
So many great moments. Where else would we be able to see a young Michael Cera try to convince a young girl that his penis tastes like a strawberry? Where else would we get to see Matt Damon and Brad Pitt as cheesy “Dating Game” contestants? Nowhere. That’s where. Every scene between Clooney and Rockwell is near-perfect. In fact, it’s unclear whether Clooney is a hallucination for most of the film, and even when he’s proven real, the entire spy world might be a delusion. Those scenes play perfectly off of his fights and lack of commitment to his girlfriend (Drew Barrymore) so it all works in context. Pulling a single scene out of that tightly woven web is down right difficult.
But even as the film is building fantastic scenes upon fantastic scenes, it cements its legacy by finally going completely noir in a confrontation between Barris and super-spy Patricia Watson as each of them attempts to somehow simultaneous seduce and kill the other. The dialog is tight, sexy, and wrapped in enigma. Very few scenes rival it when it comes to the conversational chess being played, and the price for losing that game is losing your life. When the conversation finally comes to a climax, it’s the perfect reward, flowing naturally from how the rest of the movie has poured forth out of Barris’s own endless ego.
Over all, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is the kind of movie I could watch every week for the rest of my life. A ton of quotable lines and beautiful imagery, a lead actor that gives one of the best performances of that year, and a deranged story that sticks with you because it refuses to let on as to whether it’s fact or fiction.