Confessions of A Dangerous Mind

I arrived at Loews' 19 Screen Boston Common Theater around 11:30 am only to find a throng of people standing nears the front doors. The theatre was closed due to a “power outage”. Theoretically, it seems inconceivable that such an affliction could strike a Cineplex, for Christ’s sake, but I guess it’s not impossible. Certainly more plausible than the block party for the Paradise dance club/strip bar in Cambridge whose mention in the newspaper turned out to be a “misprint” two years back.

So, I hopped the Green Line and headed over to Coolidge Corner to see “Confessions of A Dangerous Mind”, a film I’d been anticipating for months, if not years. The premise alone sold me—an adaptation of “The Gong Show” host Chuck Barris’ “unauthorized autobiography” where he claims, in between all of the game shows, he was a hit man for the CIA. Yes, that Chuck Barris, the man responsible for bringing us “The Dating Game”, the Popsicle Twins, and the Unknown Comic.

Such a wacky concept could have been a disaster on the order of “Death to Smoochy” or an underwhelming misfire like “Man On The Moon”. Instead, it’s an intelligent, irreverent, entertaining little Hollywood film that successfully captures the spirit of nothing less than prime early 70’s filmmaking. In his directorial debut, George Clooney shows how much he’s learned from Steven Soderbergh and the Coen Brothers (not to mention Scorsese, Altman, et al). He creates a canvas of Barris’ life that is as kitsch-filled as you’d expect and as graceful as you would never fathom. Charlie Kaufman’s script (arguably stronger, if not as conceptually brilliant as “Adaptation”) features shifting perspectives, interloping time periods, and interviews with actual celebrities such as Dick Clark, Jaye P. Morgan and “Gong Show” regular Gene Gene the Dancing Machine, all the while blurring fact and fiction (are the interviews scripted?) to create an enticing, dizzying collage.

I would love to see Sam Rockwell get an Oscar nomination for his role as Barris. He’s a chameleonic actor that many people have seen but probably not recognized by name up until this film. It’s an amazing performance that not only carries the film but also humanizes the man Jaye P. Morgan herself describes as both a nice guy and a prick. Rockwell is particularly effective as an aging Barris on the set of “The Gong Show”, his sarcasm and chutzpah vying with his guilt, frustration and despair as he presides over a cavalcade of bad taste. Clooney also excels playing Jim Byrd the stone-faced CIA Agent whom recruits Barris, and Drew Barrymore expertly navigates the difficult role of Penny, Barris’ girlfriend through the decades. Julia Roberts also figures in as a Natasha Badenov-esque spy (without the accent, thankfully), but she’s just a voluptuous femme fatale and nothing else.

The question of whether or not Barris actually lived such an outlandish double life reminds me a little but of “Ed Wood’s” conclusion, where Tim Burton proposes that Wood’s magnum opus, “Plan Nine From Outer Space”, had a romantically grand gala theatrical premiere. It probably didn’t happen. But if Barris is putting us on, he’s told us a great fabrication. You’ll either love it or hate it depending on how plausible you want a Chuck Barris biopic to be. Regardless, it’s an amusing, invitingly opulent, undeniably different film.