Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is the latest and best in a recent cycle of real-life rise-and-fall stories set in the ’60s and ’70s — a cycle that also includes The Kid Stays in the Picture, Auto Focus, and Catch Me If You Can. All these films fetishize their period, the dour and prim Catch Me If You Can least of all, the boisterous Confessions perhaps most. But Confessions has an excuse: its hero is TV game-show producer Chuck Barris, auteur of The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show and a cult figure — less for the two innuendo-laden but determinedly bland Games than for The Gong Show, one of the most savage programs ever on American TV. And as if those credits weren’t enough to establish the dangerousness of his mind, Barris disclosed in his autobiography that before and during the period of his success as a producer, he was a contract killer for the CIA.
The script by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) is cavalier with the details of Barris’s revelations. The film isn’t a historical document but a fantasia alongside history, and it plays on ambiguity. Was Barris telling the truth about his CIA adventures, or were his stories a hoax? Or was he delusional? As Barris (Sam Rockwell) gets recruited by superspy Jim (director George Clooney) and takes part in unexplained missions in foreign lands, Kaufman and Clooney leave it open whether these scenes are B-movie-like because they’re parodying B-movies, because they’re saying that real-life spying is like B-movie spying, or because they’re saying that it’s all taking place inside the head of someone who’s watched a lot of B-movies.
Fortunately, this isn’t the main question the film asks (if it were, the result wouldn’t be too interesting). At the center of Confessions is a mystery and a hollowness. Who is Chuck Barris? Why does Jim latch on to him? What’s the "profile" Jim claims Barris fits? We see little about him that’s extraordinary: he’s sexually voracious, ambitious, good at selling himself. Perhaps he’s summed up by Dick Clark’s testimonial (one of several interspersed with the narrative): "He had a great feel for what people wanted."
What people wanted, evidently, was pabulum. As the film details, Barris got his foot in the door of the entertainment business writing Freddy Cannon’s rollicking ode to banality, "Palisades Park," and became successful with shows in which people compete to attract lovers or predict the responses of their new spouses. The appeal of The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game was their staging of banality as spectacle. Previous game shows rewarded contestants for their knowledge of esoterica or their ability to solve some kind of riddle: on Barris’s shows, the riddles were the contestants’ own lives, and the esoterica were their habits, tastes, and quirks.
At bottom, these shows were about fear — the fear of being seen as an undesirable date or an inattentive spouse. The Gong Show was Barris’s most explicit exploitation of fear. Mercilessly showcasing its contestants’ lack of talent and distinction, the program mocked the average person’s longing to be loved just for what he or she is. If the CIA’s magic profile included the willingness to look steadily at the emptiness and absurdity of life, then Barris’s audience fit there as well: millions tuned in to experience vicariously the dashing of their own hopes of being thought worthy of love. The relationship between such entertainment and killing for the CIA gives Confessions considerable tension and interest.
Sometimes the film is too eager to please. A laborious sight gag involving Brad Pitt and Matt Damon is more trouble than it’s worth. Some of the TV-show re-creations seem calculated to appeal to viewers whose standard of TV ribaldry is more liberal than the one Barris worked with. And the collection of tunes on the soundtrack has more to do with post-’80s retro hipness than with popular tastes in the era when the film is set. (It’s unlikely, though possible, that the composer of "Palisades Park" spent the late ’60s grooving to Esquivel and German and Italian thriller soundtracks.) But the acting is mostly good: Rockwell has Barris’s Gong Show–host shtick down, and he and Clooney have an interesting Jerry-Lewis-and-Dean-Martin-like releationship. The cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel switches tonalities inventively. And in his promising directorial debut, Clooney gets away with most of the flourishes he allows himself.