Archive for Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind’ dissects TV creep Chuck Barris

(R) **

January 22, 2003

He was a TV producer credited with opening the floodgates of network bad taste. He was a successful songwriter who composed the top-five hit "Palisades Park." He was also a CIA operative responsible for killing 33 people.

According to his 1982 autobiography "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," Chuck Barris was a lot of things. The Philadelphia-born entrepreneur made many outrageous claims in his tell-all tome, the most far-fetched of which has yet to be substantiated. Barris revealed that he was recruited in 1963 by the CIA when he answered a "College graduate: Free to travel" ad.

Even as he was gaining widespread popularity with lowbrow shows such as "The Dating Game" and "The Newlywed Game," the producer continued to be sent on missions (offering dual meaning to the term "hit" man). Supposedly, his cover was to pose as a chaperone when his "Dating Game" winners were routed to faraway places. One strand of logic that seems to validate Barris' assertions explains why the couples went to such "vacation hotbeds" as Helsinki and West Berlin.

The new film based on Barris' book has a lot going for it. Superstar George Clooney selects this for his directorial debut, and the filmmaker uses his Hollywood pull to lure heavy-hitters into the cast. Julia Roberts plays a Mata Hari-type agent and Drew Barrymore a longtime girlfriend, while Brad Pitt and Matt Damon deliver amusing cameos. Clooney himself portrays the shady CIA operative who recruits Barris (Sam Rockwell).

Additionally, the flashback-laced script is penned by Charlie

Kaufman, the quirky screenwriter whose struggle with writer's block is chronicled in the fascinating "Adaptation."

But in the end, this extra-strange subject does not result in a particularly satisfying movie.

One of the problems is that Barris is hardly a likable enough individual to frame a movie around. Most of the time he's depicted as a depressed loser who doesn't get along well with men OR women. The only time he seems to be "alive" is when he's peering under his bucket hat and making introductions while hosting "The Gong Show." (The opening image is of the zombified producer standing naked in front of a static-filled TV set while sequestered in a dingy hotel room. The film doesn't get much cheerier.)

Rendering Barris is a tough chore for an actor, and Rockwell proves respectable in the part - respectable but not exceptional. Rockwell has established himself as a memorable character actor, with nifty turns as a condemned killer in "The Green Mile" and a skittish crewman in the parody "Galaxy Quest." But he's missing something as a leading man. He doesn't have the "star presence" to persuade the audience to come along for such a bumpy ride - or at least it's absent from this role.

One would never call "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" an actor's movie, anyway. Clooney embraces every cinematic trick available to help provide a hallucinatory blend of reality and illusion. Between the harsh lighting, curious colors and editing trickery, the visuals venture from intriguing to overbearing.

Clooney also intersperses actual interviews with Barris' past collaborators into the mix. These include "Newlywed" host Jim Lange, "Gong Show" regulars Jaye P. Morgan and Gene Gene the Dancing Machine, and TV exec Dick Clark (who earns a far more flattering appearance than his PR disaster in "Bowling for Columbine"). Clark says of Barris, "I wouldn't want to live his life."

The picture's highlights occur when real footage of signature moments from Barris' shows are seamlessly blended with the present-day cast. Even the infamous "Where is the most unusual place you and your wife have ever made whoopee?" from "The Newlywed Game" is gloriously inserted.

All things considered, "Confessions" isn't a movie that deserves to be gonged. But it doesn't quite merit the "516 dollars and 32 cent" prize, either.

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