No Gonging Here

The 'unauthorized autobiography' of Chuck Barris makes for a fantastic film.

A few years back, TV decided to lower the bar on reality television and discovered the bar was already resting on the floor. Undaunted, they dug a ditch and tossed it in, and now we have shows like Man vs. Beast and Joe Millionaire and the upcoming Wife Swap.

But who put the bar on the floor in the first place? Who decided that TV should be about embarrassing and humiliating people whose only crime was being so shallow and stupid that they would actually want to be on TV?

Well, it was Chuck Barris, creator of The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show. And what kind of diabolical mind would it take to have done this, to have seen entertainment and ethics as mutually exclusive realms? According to Barris, the kind of mind that would kill for money.

So in his fictional autobiography, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Barris claims to have been a hit man for the CIA, traveling the world as a Dating Game chaperone while assassinating alien undesirables and commie symps.

From this source, director George Clooney and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman have crafted a movie that is funny and strangely human while being a twisted web of lies and deceit. Vladimir Nabokov would have been proud.

Of course, Kaufman is the perfect screenwriter for this sort of project, mostly because he is one of the few Hollywood writers who can write jokes that are funny to people who don't drink beer out of a hat, but also because he himself has fictionalized his own life, and, like Barris, claimed that the fictional life is real (see Adaptation). He thus has a certain sensitivity to the story that allows him to make the Chuck Barris character warm without losing what it is that makes him evil and pathetic.

Though most of the credit for the success of the character may go to Sam Rockwell, who plays the part. Rockwell is one of those journeyman actors who have been around forever and was planning on one day being remembered as that guy you saw in that one scene on that TV show that time.

However, fate has intervened and given him a chance to shine, and now he's being talked about as an acting great and a hidden gem. I don't know about that, but his performance in Confessions is, as they say in the trades, pure gold, baby.

The film opens with Rockwell, as Barris, standing naked in a hotel room, his face an unshaved mass of pockmarks and scrapes. He recounts the sad story that led him to this moment, beginning with the first time he lied to and humiliated someone. As a boy, in a creative and evil moment, he bet a girl a dollar that his penis tasted like strawberry.

Having learned that people will do horrible and demeaning things for money, he naturally decided to go into television, where he met with little success until he got a strange offer from a CIA operative (George Clooney).

After taking on his first assignment--killing a guy in Mexico--Barris' life turns around, and he finds that the network executives who dismissed his ideas in the past are now eager to put them on the air.

Hooking up with a free-loving hippie (Drew Barrymore) and any number of other easy targets, Barris builds a television empire based on the premise that if they pay you for it, it's good. Meanwhile, he lives a secret double life as an assassin, with the added bonus that he gets to schtup Julia Roberts whenever he successfully closes a case.

All of this leads, of course, in VH1: Behind the Music style, to the moment of self-realization in the hotel room from which the film begins. Luckily, that's not where the film ends, and the path that leads Barris to that point is a lot more interesting than the story of Shaun Cassidy's brief bout with alcoholism.

It's also amazingly well directed, which I didn't expect from George Clooney, if only because he's never directed anything before. I do wonder if "executive producer" Steven Soderbergh didn't lend a wee bit of a hand, because Confessions has the polished look of a Soderbergh film.

Most effective are the changes in mood between Barris' different lives. The CIA sections are shot David Lynch style, with deep shadows and music that could have been ripped from the soundtrack to Mullholland Drive. The TV game show sections have a brighter feel, and Barris' private life is given a sleazy sheen with lower-contrast lighting and grittier sets.

Interspersed throughout are videotaped interviews with people who knew Barris, musing upon the possibility that his CIA stories were true. The parade of washed-up never-weres like Jaye P. Morgan and Gene Gene the Dancing Machine really brings home the other side of what Barris did: It's not just that he went out looking to exploit people, but rather he discovered the uncomfortable truth that people really want to be exploited. It's as though he were an assassin whose targets committed suicide before he could get to them.

Of course, killing for money, humiliating people for money and lying for money are not only cherished American traditions, they're also great film-fodder, because each of these activities is, in its own way, warm, moving, and most of all, very, very funny. So if you can stomach the truth, especially in the form of an extended lie, you'd do well to see Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, easily one of the best films of the year.

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