For today's young viewers who think that "Fear Factor," "The Bachelor" and "American Idol" are innovative TV programming, they should realize that their parents and grandparents were hip to such "reality shows" a long time ago. While Allen Funt started the craze with his "Candid Camera" show, another TV producer took such programming to new high and low levels.
If you watched the likes of "The Dating Game," "The Newlywed Game" and/or "The Gong Show" and thought that they were the death of TV, American culture and possibly the viewer's mind, you might have been on to something. You see, their producer, Chuck Barris, was really a covert CIA operative who used at least one show as a cover for his hitman activities.
As least that's what Barris claimed in his "unauthorized biography," "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" where he stated that he killed people for the U.S. Government during his gaming career. Ludicrous perhaps, but it certainly makes for an intriguing notion in director George Clooney's big screen adaptation of that work.
Marking the actor's debut behind the camera, the film is an ambitious undertaking for such a directorial neophyte. Yet, with a terrific performance by Sam Rockwell as Barris and a fun if not as bizarre as usual screenplay by Charlie Kaufman ("Adaptation," "Being John Malkovich"), Clooney manages to pull it off. While the result isn't anything brilliant, and will likely divide viewers and critics alike about its merits and missed opportunities, it's certainly a solid and notable debut.
Starting in a rather similar vein to "Apocalypse Now," the film shows a secluded and seemingly crazed Barris barricaded in a hotel room after one too many hits (of the gun rather than TV variety). Like Martin Sheen's character in that film, Rockwell's Barris introduces the story via voice over narration and we're soon sent on a time travel tour of young Barris' early days.
It's a fun and mostly engaging, if episodic look at what formed the man and later TV producer. After business and romantic failures, he meets a mysterious CIA operative - Clooney - who wants to recruit him due to fitting the necessary profile of being an assassin.
He eventually convinces Barris to join the cause and -- in one of the story's more imaginative bits - is supposedly the one who came up with the chaperone aspect of "The Dating Game." You see, contestants weren't awarded a trip to some foreign locale because of its beauty. Instead, they went, with Barris as their "chaperone," so that he could take out some commies while there.
Other such "inspirational" moments are also present, and viewers may or may not buy into them either as truth or as flights of fancy. There's no denying, however, that the film is rather engaging to watch, particularly with Clooney utilizing various camera tricks to make things more visually interesting than would one initially imagine they'd be. Some may argue that they and several high profile cameos are more distracting than constructive, but I had no such problems with either.
What the film has going for it, though, is a terrific performance and occasional on the spot impersonation of Barris by Rockwell ("Welcome to Collinwood," "Charlie's Angels"). While we might not be privy to what exactly made Barris tick, Rockwell makes him a fascinating if sad character.
Clooney ("Solaris," "Ocean's Eleven") is good as the shady CIA contact, while Julia Roberts ("Ocean's Eleven," "America's Sweethearts") and Rutger Hauer ("Surviving the Game," "Blade Runner") play other nebulous agents who may be good or bad. Drew Barrymore ("Riding in Cars With Boys," "Charlie's Angels") is also on hand as the love interest who puts up with a lot in her relationship with Barris.
Not always as clear or concise as it needs to be in the third act when the espionage gets thick, and a bit unwieldy at times, the film take an intriguing "what if" premise and runs with it at a fast enough clip that we never lose interest.
Not quite as brilliant, quirky or insightful at it might have been or as some would like, the film nevertheless kept me interested and entertained most of the time. Like Barris' work and evidently his life, it's not clear what's supposed to be real or just a sham, but that's part of the goofy fun of the overall project. "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.