- The Washington Times - Friday, January 24, 2003

"Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," a semifacetious title, catches up with the autobiography of former TV game-show impresario Chuck Barris, who published his dubious, disreputably self-aggrandizing "confessions" about 20 years ago.

That was in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of his tacky programming "empire," which began in the late 1960s with "The Dating Game" and crumbled after the vogue for "The Gong Show" in its network edition gave out in 1980.

The finality was underlined, of course, by a "Gong Show Movie" that flopped that year. It would be tempting to double-bill it with "Confessions," in part to compare the authentically shameless Barris with his hardworking but ultimately futile impersonator, Sam Rockwell.

A hodgepodge of gleefully absurd and grotesquely ominous episodes, "Confessions" is a hit-and-miss vaudeville spectacle. It recalls both the public Chuck Barris, a purveyor of ludicrous popular entertainment in his heyday, and the clandestine Chuck Barris, self-alleged hit man for the Central Intelligence Agency with 33 notches on his gun.

There's considerable lechery, as well, in the biopic, starting with a recollection of Mr. Barris' attempt to seduce an adolescent cousin, a gesture that anticipates a life of well-earned contempt.

"Confessions" is timed to coincide with a new generation of freakish game shows, including "Survivor" and "Fear Factor," whose ground rules make the Barris-era vulgarities seem rather quaint.

There's also the Charlie Kaufman factor. Within the last year we have had three movies written by the young humorist, who made a big splash in 1999 with "Being John Malkovich." The arrival of "Confessions" follows a Kaufman original, "Human Nature," last spring and the current "Adaptation," also eccentrically derived from a nonfiction book. Not that "Confessions" can be regarded as nonfiction, especially when the subject purports to spill his guts about a double life with the CIA.

This particular "confession" has always seemed metaphorical rather than candid. In Mr. Barris' clouded mind, it permits a trifling, shabby career in show business to be explained away by upping the ante. In effect, he offers the following defense: "My TV rubbish was nothing; you should have seen the real damage I caused."

Mr. Barris had the formula down pat 20 years ago, when the CIA was a frequent target of scorn: Blame your craven value system and misspent professional life on the rogue government. Mr. Barris' affinity for dishonorable and self-pitying vibes must have been catnip for Mr. Kaufman, whose earlier protagonists also were sneaks and wreckers who found it difficult to ingratiate themselves.

We encounter the movie Barris holed up naked in his apartment, resisting the appeals of a girlfriend named Penny, played by Drew Barrymore. This nervous breakdown, circa 1980, provides the frame for a flashback chronicle. It accumulates some amusing fragments, especially when Mr. Kaufman and director George Clooney are lampooning network television as Mr. Barris knew it, first as an aspiring NBC page in 1955 and then as a flourishing producer in the 1960s and 1970s.

What they can't do is secure any human-interest traction when depicting Mr. Barris' philandering or his apparently bogus double life with the CIA. It doesn't escape their notice that the idea of recruiting Chuck Barris as a secret agent smacks of farce.

The idea is played for farce during initial scenes of training, which would appear to qualify Sam Rockwell for speedy rejection. Recruited by a humorless agent named Jim Byrd (Mr. Clooney), the misfit appears to survive the course only for the same ridiculous reasons that Jerry Lewis was able to make it through basic training in his old service comedies.

Mr. Clooney demonstrates directing flair, but he can't move effectively from Barris the TV opportunist to Barris the international man of mystery. When the director needs an air of plausibility about lethal assignments, the connotations remain facetious. It's easier to think of Mr. Barris as an Austin Powers than a deadly operative.

Although introduced in a brutally clownish fashion, Rutger Hauer as an agent in Europe supplies a physical authority and even a measure of pathos that Mr. Rockwell can't rival.

Julia Roberts, cast as a Mata Hari named Patricia ("Kill for me, baby" is one of her tag lines), plays out an interlude of "Spy vs. Spy" double-crossing with Mr. Rockwell that is diverting as an isolated sequence, but it never has a ring of plausibility, unless one regards it as another example of Chuck's imagination running wild.

Mr. Clooney stages one fabulous squelch sequence that admirably sums up the Barris dilemma. Set in a private swimming grotto, the scene emphasizes a shimmering beauty (Krista Allen) who strokes to the side of the pool, where a dazzled Mr. Rockwell awaits, but instead of an invitation, he gets a definitive squelch. The movie might as well end soon after this crushing verdict. It's easy to believe that Chuck Barris might respond by closing up shop, going into seclusion and seeking literary atonement.


TITLE: "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind"

RATING: R (Frequent profanity and sexual candor; occasional graphic violence with gruesome illustrative details; seriocomic treatment of essentially depraved behavior; allusions to drug use; fleeting nudity and simulated intercourse)

CREDITS: Directed by George Clooney. Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, based on the book by Chuck Barris.

RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes

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