Having transcended his own humble TV origins, debut director George Clooney still has sympathy for the little guy who didn't. Maybe too much sympathy. Based on the 1982 memoir by Chuck Barris, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a midlife-crisis movie about a successful but critically loathed game-show impresario who finds himself disgusted by the shallow entertainment he's cranked out over the years. Barris (Sam Rockwell) initially appears, ࠬa Howard Hughes, as a scruffy, naked derelict in a New York hotel room watching Reagan's 1981 inauguration on television. "Your potential is infinite," the Gipper proclaims. It's a darkly prophetic irony, since the film is about the infinite disappointment of potential unfulfilled. To ease his regrets, Barris sits down to write his memoirs, creating an alternate version of his life in which he was secretly a CIA hit man, responsible for 33 killings. Winkingly, Mind takes him at his word. (The film opens Friday, Jan. 24 at Metro and other theaters.)
For its breezy first two acts, Mind has lots of fun mixing up the showbiz and espionage in a kitschy jumble of faded-postcard flashbacks and Cold War signifiers. The biopic spans the '50s (when Barris got his start as a junior executive at NBC) to the '80s (when he was a washed-up network castoff). I like Barris' nostalgic/deluded perspective, and so, it seems, does Clooney, who relishes the backstage frenzy of TV's golden age—the humming studio, the buzzing lights, the nervous crew, the huge old cameras with the rotating lens heads that ratchet into place. Brad Pitt and Matt Damon later show up as '60s contestants on The Dating Game with sideburns, bangs, and bell-bottoms. (You'll have to watch the movie to see which not-so-groovy bachelor prevails.)
Meanwhile, Barris enjoys the James Bond fantasy life. He's recruited by a CIA agent (Clooney), trained as an assassin (shooting at targets of Castro, Mao, and Khrushchev), then begins killing bad guys in Europe under cover of chaperoning winners from The Dating Game. ("Think of it as a hobby, something you do to relax," drawls Clooney.) There's even a Bond girl—the leggy CIA contact (Julia Roberts) who meets Barris in West Berlin and Helsinki, where they rut like avid weasels. Looking like Elke Sommer in her short blond wig, knee-high white vinyl boots, and fur-trimmed miniskirt, Roberts whispers, "Kill for me, baby." Who wouldn't?
Best known as the psychobilly death-row inmate in The Green Mile, Rockwell brings his usual goofball energy to his role. He's got Barris' on-air mannerisms down pat (for those old enough to remember him on The Gong Show). With his Hefner-esque zipless-fuck libido, Barris wants no part of the conventional romance that he markets and also parodies on TV. Rockwell is matched by the cheery gameness of Drew Barrymore, as a beatnik girlfriend who follows Barris to L.A. and offers him the fidelity he isn't ready for.
HAIRSTYLES, FASHIONS, and cars change with the decades, but Mind's characters don't age at all, looking as young in the '80s as they do in the '50s, creating a refreshingly artificial flatness and suggesting—though never actually stating—that most of the action is taking place in Barris' mind. Yet the film never pulls the rug on Barris' story (though you constantly expect it, ࠬa A Beautiful Mind). Intermittent documentary-style interviews with vaguely recognizable real-life figures punctuate Barris' one-sided account (Hey, isn't that Jaye P. Morgan?), but they never quite deflate his fantasy. It's a fun juggling act . . . until the clown cries.
The breeziness turns to bathos as Barris, soulful and sad in his hotel room, with neither the CIA nor Hollywood needing him anymore, reaches out, not for a gun, but for . . . a typewriter. Ugh. Here Mind becomes another of those therapeutic "This is the story of how I wrote this story" flicks, rife with healing and recovery. All of a sudden, we have to plumb the guy's dark psyche, as Clooney and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) delve into Barris' unhappy childhood to search for explanations for his behavior. Mind becomes a patho-biology picture on top of its midlife-crisis mode. (Could we have a moratorium on those, please? I've got my own problems.)
Of course we all know Barris' movie-of-the-week mistake: rejecting the love of a good woman (Barrymore, who's conveniently still there for him three decades later and still looking just as hot).
BASED ON HIS FIRST film directing gig, Clooney seems like a pretty smart guy. Instead of choosing some dumb action flick, he picked a challenging, interesting script, taking this gonzo memoir and treating it straight. But maybe he's got too much of a personal stake in the problems of Hollywood's rich and famous. Even behind the camera, he's still like the empathetic TV doctor from ER, saying "Tell me where it hurts." His bedside manner gets the better of him. Mind's a lot hipper than Denzel Washington's Antwone Fisher, but it's still ultimately about reconciling and healing the fractured psyche. And it plays on a tired Hollywood ambivalence: Barris wants something more than showbiz, something serious, something not finally subject to Nielsen ratings or cancellation. (Paging Dr. Ross, stat!)
But why be so ashamed of shallow pop-cultural achievements? I much prefer the unconflicted attitude of swinging Hollywood producer Robert Evans, as portrayed in last year's documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture. His life is as thin as the movie screen, no more substantial than the projector beam, and he knows it. There's no whining or self-pity. So, buck up, Barris: What was The Gong Show if not reality TV before its time, Jackass with greasepaint? Maybe it was gonged by critics then, but today it looks downright prophetic, even tasteful.