According to TV producer Chuck Barris — the man who foisted The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show on a distressingly willing American public — there was more to his life than met the eye. Granted, it would be hard to imagine that there could be less than met the eye.
It’s almost equally hard, however, to imagine that what Barris claimed in his “unauthorized” autobiography could be true — namely that he was a hit man for the CIA who killed 33 people in the line of duty. Nonetheless, that’s his claim. And it’s also the premise of George Clooney’s directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, as auspicious a first-time directing job as any I’ve seen.
It helps that he has a first-rate screenplay from Charlie Kaufman. I’m willing to forgive Kaufman for writing Adaptation on the basis of this effort; oddly, though, both films share a similar basic approach: the deliberate blurring of reality and fantasy. It works in Dangerous Mind in ways it didn’t work (at least for me) in Adaptation, simply because I knew way too well where the events in Adaptation went beyond all bounds of reality. Here, the question is not so easily answered because the whole premise of game-show producer and CIA hit man is so screwy that the film seems utterly fanciful from the onset. But the real brilliance lies in the approach that Clooney, Kaufman and star Sam Rockwell took with the source material.
You go into the theater thinking that, of course, Barris is filled with the juice of the prune. There seem only two possible ways to approach the film: Either Barris is lying, or else he’s delusional. And for part of Dangerous Mind, it seems that the filmmakers are leaning toward the second reading. Indeed, large chunks of the movie play (deliberately, I suspect) like a savage and subversive parody of Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind with Rockwell, Clooney and Drew Barrymore standing in for Russell Crowe, Ed Harris and Jennifer Connelly. And, to some degree, the entire film can be read this way. (And if that’s the course you choose to take, you’re finally faced with the irony that a fantasticated black comedy seems more realistic than Howard’s feel-good dramaturgy.)
Dangerous Mind, though, never comes out and tells us that its main character is delusional. There are no comforting avuncular shrinks waiting on the sidelines to explain it all and make everything neat. Moreover, the film crosses a line that A Beautiful Mind didn’t: One CIA character — Julia Roberts as an agency hit woman — interacts with a definitely real character other than Barris; in any reading of Barris as delusional, Roberts’ character oughtn’t to be able to do this.
Dangerous Mind goes out of its way to add one more possibility on how it ought to be viewed: However outre and improbable it may seem, just maybe Barris is telling the truth. The film deliberately makes no actual case for this, though it does unobtrusively raise some questions — like what kind of game show gives away “dream dates” to Helsinki and West Berlin, and just why did Barris (according to occasional comments made by his real associates) disappear for a week or two at a time? No conclusion is drawn for viewers, so Barris’ CIA-agent status remains an alternative interpretation for a film that joyously defies a single authoritative reading.
This is not the sort of approach that’s apt to make Dangerous Mind everyone’s idea of a good time; anyone wanting a movie where everything is tied up in a neat little package isn’t part of the audience for this movie. However, if you want a film that isn’t afraid to leave you wondering, that isn’t afraid to take risks, and that isn’t even afraid to be a little messy, Dangerous Mind is a delightfully wicked indulgence that plays with its audience just as much as it plays with its subject.
Clooney’s direction is wonderfully assured and unfailingly creative. Very possibly he had a little input from Steven Soderbergh in the capacity of executive producer, but there’s precious little in Dangerous Mind that recalls anything from any Soderbergh picture I can think of. The scene when Barris has the “inspiration” for The Gong Show while suffering through an incomprehensible lineup of Asian women singing “If I Had a Hammer” (just what are these women being auditioned for?) is fresh, vital and suggestive of a completely new cinematic voice. Clooney’s direction is filled with such moments — and he does right by his cast, too.
Casting ueber movie star Julia Roberts as a slinky, sexy spy (who might or might not be real) wasn’t just a clever idea (how better to create a fantasy than to use one of the primary fantasy images of our age?), but Clooney actually gets a savvy, complete characterization out of her — something that has often defeated more seasoned directors. Similarly, Clooney manages to get a warm, even touchingly believable, performance out of Drew Barrymore — something I’ve never seen anyone else do.
And Sam Rockwell? Well, the film rises or falls on his performance — and rise it does. Chuck Barris — the prime ’60s and ’70s guru of the dumbing-down of America — isn’t a character designed to engage our sympathies, and the screenplay doesn’t go out of its way to try and change that, presenting Barris as a man who really only wants to get into TV production because he thinks it’ll get him laid. Barris is just possibly the most shallow hero ever to grace a film — yet through Rockwell’s performance, he emerges as strangely likable and even tragic; in the end, that’s how Barris should be portrayed. This puckish film is a witty but moving portrait of a man who made it all by doing what showbiz has always done best: Playing to the lowest common denominator.
What might be most moving about Clooney’s film isn’t simply the idea that such a coup is inherently hollow, but that Barris’ story touches on our own innate shallowness as a culture.