As most people know by now, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, based on Chuck Barris’s autobiography of the same name, reveals that in addition to writing hit pop songs (“Palisades Park”), creating classic game shows (“The Dating Game,” “The Newlywed Game”), and hosting the most insane carnival sideshow ever to hit the airwaves (“The Gong Show),” Barris carried out over 30 assassinations for the CIA. Whether you want to believe this is the truth or a fib or a delusion or a sad ploy for attention is up to you. Barris wrote about it in his book about 20 years ago, but these days he doesn’t talk much about it. When asked if it’s really true, he just smiles.
There is undoubtedly something a little tragic about the parts of Chuck Barris’s life we can actually prove. Barris had a dream to bring something new and fun and spontaneous to the mass television audience. The problem is, his sensibility was just a little...off. Or maybe it was way off. Or perhaps he gradually lost track of his original vision. He ultimately scored many successes with his shows in the 60’s and 70’s, but he also found himself being harshly criticized for many years to come for turning TV into a geek show of crude innuendo (e.g., “Dating Game” and “Newlywed Game”) and cruel exploitation (“The Gong Show”). It seems the criticism ultimately got to him in the worst way: he took it to heart. He went through some difficult times, and if you see him today, he’s still Chuck Barris with his goofball grin and oblique sense of humor, but his manner is so conciliatory and inoffensive as to seem nearly apologetic. That’s a little hard to take from the guy who unleashed the Unknown Comic and Gene Gene the Dancing Machine on daytime audiences.
What the film does is use Barris’s purported double life as a CIA assassin as a window into a mind that, whether or not it’s truly dangerous, is certainly riddled with the severest sorts of guilt and self-doubt. His “missions” for the CIA give structure and purpose to a life that is out of control and unfulfilling. Killing might be wrong, but at least it’s clear and tangible. It’s real, in a way that putting on a purple top hat and introducing a singing poodle act can never quite be. The movie doesn’t help us figure out if Barris really did all those killings; but it does help us understand why he might say he did.
It occurs to me I’ve made Confessions of a Dangerous Mind sound like a somber film here, which is a disservice to it. It’s a real hoot, one of the most purely entertaining movies I saw last year. Sam Rockwell is just right as Barris, and the screenplay by Charlie Kaufman (see Adaptation) is thoughtful, clever and hilarious in equal parts--it should have gotten a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination. Most surprising of all is the confident and sublimely witty direction by first-timer George Clooney. Believe it or not, this guy’s a real director. I hope he keeps at it.
©2002 dondi demarco