Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is an excellent, bittersweet film, very funny in a dry sort of way, and also a little sad. I liked it better, I think, than I did Adaptation, the other Charlie Kaufman script now playing. Confessions, of course, has the advantage of being based on Chuck Barris’ book, which I have listed elsewhere on my website as being among the best works of American fiction of the last half-century….

The tone of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is letter perfect; Kaufman and George Clooney (surprisingly effective as a first-time director) very well capture the manic comedy and the self-loathing that characterizes the book, in which Barris recounts his double life as a game show producer and host, and a hitman for the CIA. It’s as if the guilt that high-minded critics think Barris ought to feel for unleashing on the world such programs as The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show, is instead transferred to his bad conscience over the 33 or so murders he has committed.

(I’m sorry the movie doesn’t mention another of the Barris shows I really enjoyed, Three’s A Crowd; but I guess you can’t put in everything).

What made Barris’ game shows so great was the delight they took in their own sleaziness, and the eagerness of the contestants to participate in their own humiliation–and beyond this, the way that the shows were continually upping the ante on what could get by the network censors. There’s some of this in the movie, but mostly it’s indirect. For the most part, the movie stages all the important events in Barris’ life precisely in terms of the genre expectations we bring to such scenes when we see them in the movies: romantic moments and bitter ones, the gratification of success, the dread of danger and the macho thrill of secret agent adventures, the inability of a man to committ in a relationship, and so on. If Barris was an early proponent of what has since become known as reality television–as was suggested today in The New York Times–then the movie takes the complementary and opposite tack: not turning the tube on ‘real’ people, but charting the ways in which our reality is already molded by the forms and expectations of the entertainment industry. (That is to say, how we are postmodern. It seems to me this penetration of reality by the media, rather than Kaufman’s self-reflexive games, is what makes this movie seem so much in the spirit of the times).

The acting is great–Sam Rockwell’s Barris, but also Clooney as Barris’ CIA contact, and Drew Barrymore and Julia Roberts as the two women in his life. All the actors manage to frame themselves “in quotation marks,” but matter-of-factly so, rather than with a self-congratulatory nudge and wink.

There is finally something melancholy about this movie–as Barris’ guilt over his CIA hits, his overall sense of a life of futility, and his realization of betrayal (an inevitability in the spy business, but more generally in life) gets played out over the melancholy tones of the slow movement from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (I think). The movie’s accomplishment is to make this bittersweet sense of things coexist with that other sense that everything is suspended “in quotation marks.” Does that postmodern suspension of truth and seriousness mean that life is tragic, because we have never succeeded in grasping anything real? Or is it that tragedy also fades away and becomes unreal? (“Our revels now are ended…”). The film exquisitely balances these two possibilities, without letting either of them take over.

At the end, when Barris finally marries Penny (Drew Barrymore’s character), who has loved him, and been treated lightly and unfairly by him, for something like twenty-five years, he tries to confess to her about his other life as a hired killer. But she laughs at the absurdity of this, convinced that it is just another of Chuck’s jokes; and after a moment he joins in and laughs with her, conceding the point. I doubt many people actually believe Barris’ confessions; but we’ve just seen them played out on the screen, self-consciously fictive, to be sure, but no more so than anything else we have seen. And that doubt is what stays with the viewer of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind; we haven’t suspended our disbelief, so much as we have come to think about how everything, onscreen or off, on reality television or in our homes, is infected with the same whiff of unreality, and yet inescapable in its emotional effect upon us.