Thursday, April 29, 2021

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

Directed by George Clooney

Written by Charlie Kaufman

George Clooney's directorial debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind has the rhythm of an episodic television episode and the retro cinematic style of 1970s New Hollywood. Based on Chuck Barris's "memoir" that created an urban legend: he led a double life as an assassin for the CIA. With a script by Charlie Kaufman, Clooney admittedly attempted to imitate the directorial style of the Coen Brothers and Steven Soderbergh. The result is a postmodern fastball about ephemeral post-war pop culture and Cold War lore with a fractured narrative style and speculative representation of history viewed through a lens of distortion and uncertainty. 

Sam Rockwell was cast as Barris after hundreds of actors were considered. Barris's book had been a hot property since the 1980s with many directors expressing interest in the project. Kaufman's script was later modified by Clooney who thought it was too experimental for a major studio release leading to acrimony between the writer and director. Drew Barrymore was cast Barris's long time girlfriend Penny and Julia Roberts as a nefarious assassin. Clooney cast himself as Barris's CIA handler Jim. Real life figures who worked with Barris appear in interview segments reminiscent of Warren Beatty's Reds. Brad Pitt and Matt Damon also made cameo appearances. Whether one believes the story or not is irrelevant, the narrative possibilities are paramount.  

The film depicts Barris as an anti-social young man only interested in chasing women and getting into the nascent television industry. He wrote the 1962 pop song "Palisades Park" and eventually produced game shows like the The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game. The Gong Show only emboldened his critics who viewed him as the epitome of junk culture. Much of the disposable reality TV of the 21st Century owes a debt to those shows. Clooney also had a familiarity with the era since his father Nick Clooney worked in TV news, giving the film a Network vibe at times.

The contrasting worlds of television and cold war espionage create a mash up of 70s movies like paranoid thrillers of Alan Pakula - Klute, The Parallax View, and All the President's Men. Dark humor is especially present during his undercover missions, all those trips to West Berlin and Vienna with couples from The Dating Game chaperoned by Barris were allegedly cover for hit jobs. He never knew the reasons behind any of his jobs other than his targets were considered enemies of the government or even which side of the government he was working for; the lines continue to blur as paranoia takes over the story. As the espionage and TV worlds begin to merge the film comes close to channeling the woozy mindset of the era. 

By far Clooney's most adventurous film, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind benefits from its retro sense of the surreal. Clooney's more conventional approach and Kaufman's script are in conflict and create something of a compromise. More of a curio than a classic, it's best to watch sometime after 2am.

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