Based on game-show king Chuck Barris' "unauthorized autobiography," Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the latest self-pleased script from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), offers repetitions, not variations, on a single idea. The movie, like the book, contends that just as Barris the impresario was killing people with embarrassment on reality-TV precursors like The Dating Game and The Gong Show, Barris the secret CIA agent was killing enemies of the American state for real.
Even if you grant the conceptual boldness of depicting TV-land and Cold War hot spots as equivalent killing fields - who could believe in this scenario? Anyone with a library card can discover that Barris himself, in a later book called The Game Show King, told a straight version of the same personal history of TV in the '60s and '70s. In those pages he related dreaming up special international getaways for the prime-time version of The Dating Game without crediting a CIA control for the idea or saying that he used the trips to commit assassinations on the side.
Kaufman and director George Clooney, who also plays Barris' spymaster, believe that an audience will find Barris fascinating precisely because he was masochistic enough either to lead or to dream up such a booby-trapped double life. Their detachment chills the movie out. They pile on the self-loathing with a snow shovel, starting the movie with Sam Rockwell's Barris standing naked in a hotel room contemplating his life's failures - his game shows going to pot, his CIA career getting poisoned and his inability to achieve the glorious immortality of Proust or Einstein.
Throughout, the filmmakers embellish Barris' self-destructive exhibitionism with their own florid details, making him not merely the Sammy Glick of daytime television (what makes Chucky run?) but also, for example, the secret son of a serial killer. Even if you buy the worst of it, there's no reason to make the purchase. In this movie (unlike The Game Show King), Barris is only the anti-hero of his own life, cashing in on clever ideas that connect with the Zeitgeist while secretly worried that the critics who condemn him for debasing the culture may be right.
Like so many other supposedly offbeat protagonists this year, Barris, like Harvey Feirstein in the old Saturday Night Live routine, just wants to be loved - he was always a loser in his real teen dating games. But when Drew Barrymore's free-spirited, language-bending, adorably affectionate Penny offers Barris unconditional affection, he devalues it and her.
Barris' ambition is blind, his direction unknown, and Rockwell doesn't give him the charisma that would make him credible as a pop-culture magnet. His one moment of acting glory arrives when Barris emcees The Gong Show - the original non-talent show - and drives himself into giddy movements that celebrate his exploitation of the non-gifted and unskilled. But the movie's audience barely has time to savor this moment of low victory before Barris descends into paranoia about his studio crew and audience as a seedbed of assassins.
Clooney the filmmaker appears to have visions of Stanley Kubrick dancing in his head: He wants Confessions of a Dangerous Mind to have the deadpan irony of Dr. Strangelove. But the movie isn't deadpan - it's just dead. Clooney is so intent on displaying a director's eye for composition and movement that he cripples the film with self-consciousness; the camera's always pulling too much toward the satiric touches, such as the CIA trainees emerging from initiation in identical coats and fedoras.
The constant movement and play of light and shadow doesn't express anything but the director's intention to be lively. And the tricks that divide his compositions, bringing distant players together or allowing a new character to relax into a scene before another even notices he's there, actually flatten the action out like a comic strip.
More surprising, Clooney's work with the actors is erratic. Rockwell is uneven, and Julia Roberts overplays the fatale in her femme secret agent. Only Barrymore overcomes this film's visual slick and groundless effrontery with a juicy, glowing, openhearted performance, filled with unexpected smiles. Barrymore is seductive and unsinkable. She overflows with life; Roberts and the others offer sketchy imitations of it.
Starring Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts and George Clooney
Directed by George Clooney
Released by Miramax
Time 113 minutes