Sam Rockwell, George Clooney, Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts, Rutger Hauer, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Chuck Barris (book), Charlie Kaufman (screenplay)
When you lead two different lives, it's easy to forget what side you're on.
With an all-star cast, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind marks George Clooney's impressive directorial debut, recounting the memoirs of game show host Chuck Barris and his claim of a double life as a CIA assassin.
Budget $29 million.
$5.833 million on 1769 screens.
English Dolby Digital 5.1
French Dolby Digital 5.1
Runtime: 114 min.
Release Date: 9/9/2003
• Audio Commentary with Director George Clooney and Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel
• Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary
• Six “Behind the Scenes” Featurettes
• Sam Rockwell Screen Tests
• Gong Shows Acts
• “The Real Chuck Barris” Documentary
• Still Gallery
• Sneak Peeks
Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 3, 2003)
As a kid in the Seventies, I got to know Chuck Barris as the flamboyant and smirking host of The Gong Show. For a TV producer, Barris was truly ahead of his time, and The Gong Show foreshadowed today’s “I’ll humiliate myself as long as I get famous” mentality. I can’t say that’s a good thing, but it made for some funky entertainment at the time.
For most folks, Barris long ago became a half-remembered relic of the era. He doesn’t quickly come to mind when one considers potential subjects for feature film biographies, but 2003’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind does just that. Based on Barris’ autobiography, Confessions looks at the TV personality’s alleged exploits.
The flick opens in early 1981 and finds a disheveled and almost catatonic Barris (Sam Rockwell) holed up in a New York City hotel. His long-time girlfriend Penny (Drew Barrymore) comes to bring him back to Los Angeles and wants him to finally marry her.
From there the movie launches into flashbacks. We learn that a desire for sex motivated most of Barris’ actions in life, and in a segment from 1940, we quickly see the 11-year-old Chuck (Michael Cera) as he uses an odd method to attempt to entice a girl to lick his privates. This fails, and we see the maturing Barris’ consistent lack of success with the ladies.
In 1955, Barris goes to Manhattan to get a career in TV. He lands a job as an NBC page and eventually moves into a management trainee program, but he gets booted out of that. Still, he perseveres and in 1961, he writes a hit song called “Palisades Park”. Barris wants to invest his royalties into the creation of a TV game show pilot. After he scores with a babe named Debbie, he meets her roommate Penny, and the pair soon enough become a couple, albeit one with no strings attached.
Slowly Barris’ TV career starts to take off, and he gets The Dating Game on the air, though it takes a while. In the meantime, a mysterious dude named Jim Byrd (George Clooney) recruits him as an “independent contract agent” for the CIA. Why? We’re never really sure, but we see Barris undergo physical training to become a killer, and he eventually needs to go to Mexico for his first assassination.
The rest of the film alternates these two sides of Barris’ life. The Dating Game becomes a hit and leads to The Newlywed Game, The Gong Show and other projects. The vacations won by the winning contestants on The Dating Game also act as a cover for Barris’ missions, and on one of these, he meets and romances another agent named Patricia. She turns into one of his most significant relationships along with the long-suffering Penny.
Confessions never takes a firm stand on the veracity of Barris’ claims to have been a CIA agent, and that’s probably for the best. First-time director Clooney does treat a lot of the spy stuff in a moderately unserious way. However, I didn’t think the flick tipped its hand in either direction. While the spy elements usually seem absurd, they never come across as pure fantasy.
I kind of like that ambivalence, but overall, Confessions offers a disappointment. I think the main problem stems from Clooney’s direction. He infuses the flick with a strong visual panache that actually seems too strong. The film lacks any form of stylistic coherence as it jumps from one look to another. I don’t mind that format in general, and it can work well ala Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic; each substory in that movie had a distinctly different style.
However, Soderbergh’s visual elements made sense and displayed concrete consistency. Clooney’s don’t. One minute he makes things look almost like a colorized black and white movie, while another scene seems bleached and yellow. The next might be almost totally free from any color, while another would appear sickly green. The tones change rapidly and often without much apparent reason.
Even if Clooney maintained consistency, it’d still be too much. The color variations come across like nothing more than a gimmick. They feel like shorthand to impress us more than an attempt to naturally tell a story.
That need to dazzle us really becomes the film’s biggest shortcoming. During his audio commentary, Clooney often refers to flicks that influenced the visual appearance of Confessions. This movie often feels like little more than Clooney’s attempt to impress us with everything he’s ever learned about filmmaking. It’s like he finally got his shot behind the camera and wants desperately to make sure he gets it all out there.
A little – or a lot – of restraint would have better served the movie. As would more coherent storytelling. Confessions follows a pretty traditional structure; after the brief start in 1981, it goes to flashbacks that then move forward chronologically. Characters and concepts come and go without much meaning, and when the film introduces the notion of some issues related to Barris’ mother, it’s way too late in the flick to make much sense. It feels like Clooney pulls those components out of his ass just to add some potential depth to the tale.
Unfortunately, Confessions lacks the introspective and analytical side it needs. In many ways, it reminds me of Auto Focus, another story about a deeply flawed TV figure from the past. Both present the seedy side of these semi-beloved performers, and both fail to delve inside their minds in a satisfying manner.
That’s more excusable in the case of Crane, who seemed to be a tremendously superficial man; there wasn’t much there to explore. This issue seems less forgivable when it comes to Barris. Other than the weird mother-related notions that pop up late in the flick, the closest thing to an explanation for his pathology is that he really wants to get laid.
On the positive side, Rockwell once again acquits himself well as Barris. Rockwell is quickly becoming the most versatile actor of his generation. Like a Gary Oldman, he can play a wide range of roles and not have you realize it’s him every time. Here Rockwell keeps the character edgy but maintains the essentially schmuckiness crucial to the character. It’s another solid performance from an excellent actor.
Perhaps the most entertaining aspect of the flick stems from its many cameos. Clooney clearly called in some favors from his big-named friends here, as more than a few “A”-list actors show up for parts that range from modest to miniscule. To my surprise, all of them receive listings in the end credits; I thought these would be unnamed cameos.
However, only one of them is mentioned anywhere on the DVD’s packaging, and even there you’d have to read the fine print on the back. It must have killed the PR folks to be unable to more prominently tout these folks’ involvement, though to make up for it, Rockwell is billed fourth underneath some better-known talent. Anyway, I purposefully omitted the names of these actors to leave some surprise for readers who’ve not already seen the flick. I didn’t know any of them would be there before I saw Confessions, and that lack of foreknowledge made their appearances more fun.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get much else out of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. I wanted to like the movie, but beyond an excellent performance from Rockwell and some entertaining cameos, it did little for me. Too much of it feels like a series of little episodes instead of a coherent story, and the attempt to present eight million visual styles becomes a distraction. At times Confessions seems moderately interesting, but it remains much too meandering and unfocused to really succeed.
The DVD Grades: Picture A-/ Audio B/ Bonus B+
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.40:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although the flick’s high level of stylization made it look odd at times, the DVD presented a pretty terrific transfer.
At all times, sharpness appeared excellent. Never did I discern any hints of soft or muddled images. Instead, the movie consistently came across as crisp and detailed. Jagged edges and moiré effects caused no concerns, and I also witnessed no indications of edge enhancement. As for print flaws, the movie seemed free from any form of defect.
As I discussed during the body of the review, Confessions utilized very erratic color schemes. At times the palette looked warm and natural, while other sequences would appear radically desaturated. Many shots presented an odd tint that made the scenes look like they were from colorized black and white movies. Despite the many variations, the colors remained accurately represented. It seemed clear the oddness stemmed from the original photography and the transfer replicated the tones well. Black levels also seemed firm and dense, while low-light shots came across as detailed and appropriately opaque. Overall, this was a fine transfer that presented the movie very well.
Despite a generally limited scope, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack presented a solid piece. The forward spectrum offered the heaviest level of information. Music showed terrific stereo delineation, as the score and songs all displayed great definition. Effects also popped up in logical places, and those elements melded together smoothly to create a nicely seamless sense of environment. Some localized speech showed up as well, but not much really stood out about the mix. The surrounds mostly added general ambience and reinforced the forward realm; occasionally I heard specific information from the rears – like the flight of a jet across the back or TV studio audience applause - but they remained fairly passive.
While the soundfield didn’t attempt much, the quality of the audio seemed excellent. Speech always came across as distinct and warm, and I noticed no problems connected to intelligibility or edginess. Effects didn’t often play a huge role in the proceedings, but they remained clean and accurate. Those elements showed no signs of distortion or other concerns, and they were appropriately dynamic. Music worked best. Score and songs seemed vibrant and detailed, and those pieces worked especially well in regard to their bass response. Low-end was nicely deep and warm. The mix lacked the ambition to rise above a “B”, but Confessions sounded good nonetheless.
When we examine the disc’s supplements, we start with an audio commentary from director George Clooney and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel. Both sit together for this running, screen-specific track. That factor causes some minor problems because the two men present very similar-sounding voices. Given our familiarity with Clooney, I’d think I’d encounter no trouble distinguishing one from the other, but it often seems surprisingly tough.
In any case, the pair present an erratic and generally ordinary discussion. Not surprisingly, technical matters in the visual domain dominate their comments. We get a lot of information about camera work and the flick’s look. They also tell us about the movie’s occasional creative in-camera effects; those tales present a charmingly low-tech series of solutions. Other positive parts of the track stem from comments about their influences, some fun anecdotes, a few notes of bits you might otherwise miss, and the pair’s general rapport. They joke together a lot, and after a slow start, Clooney becomes very engaged in the process for most of its running time.
Unfortunately, way too much of the commentary just extols the flick and its participants. Clooney constantly tells us how much he loves this shot or that cue. Banal praise dominates the piece and weighs it down pretty badly. Yes, some good material does appear, but those elements become buried under the happy talk. At times, the commentary seems like a lot of fun, and the good rapport between Clooney and Sigel makes the praise easier to take. However, it remains an inconsistent and essentially average chat overall.
After this we find a collection of seven Behind the Scenes featurettes. These run between 90 seconds and four minutes, 58 seconds for a total of 22 minutes, 36 seconds of footage. These mix movie snippets, glimpses at the set, and interview clips from the real Chuck Barris, Clooney, production designer James D. Bissell, costume designer Renee April, storyboard artist J. Todd Anderson, and actors Barrymore, Rockwell and Rutger Hauer. They cover a nix variety of subjects. They chat about the potential truthfulness of the story, casting and how Clooney became the director, some tricky filming methods, Rockwell’s take on Barris, visual stylings, and Clooney’s directorial work. As usual, the behind the scenes shots offer the best elements, but the comments seem reasonably informative as well. This piece doesn’t give us a rich and coherent documentary, but it provides a fairly nice glimpse at some major topics.
Next we get 11 Deleted Scenes. These fill a total of 22 minutes and 45 seconds. Most of them detail Barris’ mental breakdown. These seem moderately interesting at times. For those curious, the first one gives us a quick look at Rockwell’s schlong. The sequences can be viewed with or without commentary from Clooney and Sigel. They usually let us know why the clips were cut, and they also toss in a few decent notes. Overall, though, the commentary seems a bit spotty.
When we examine the Sam Rockwell Screen Test area, we discover three separate segments that last a total of seven minutes, five seconds. These seem unusually accomplished and lack the roughness normally seen in this sort of material. They definitely deserve a look.
A short documentary called The Real Chuck Barris takes six minutes, 13 seconds. It intercuts movie clips with interview remarks from Barris, Gene Gene the Dancing Machine, Jaye P. Morgan, Dick Clark, Jim Lange, and the Unknown Comic. To call this a documentary seems like an overstatement, but it presents some interesting thoughts about the man. It’s too short to offer much substance, but it’s intriguing nonetheless.
In the area titled Gong Show Acts, we look at five performances that last a total of four minutes, 42 seconds. I thought these would either be shots from the original TV show or modern day interviews with those performers, but instead they essentially offer more deleted scenes. Rockwell does Barris as he introduces the acts, and then we watch them. Most seem pretty unexceptional, though the final one – “Mae East” – might be the oddest thing I’ve seen in a while.
A Still Gallery presents some photos. We get 25 in all. Most of these come from candid shots on the set, though a few publicity images appear as well. Lastly, in the Sneak Peeks domain, we find ads for “Miramax Year of Gold”, Kill Bill, Dysfunktional Family, View From the Top and the Confessions soundtrack. The first two also appear when you start the DVD.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind boasts an intriguing concept, a great lead performance, and a cast that includes some very big names. Unfortunately, it suffers from “tries too hard” syndrome, and its general lack of coherence makes it only sporadically interesting. The DVD offers excellent picture along with solid sound and a pretty broad set of supplements. For those curious about the subject, it may deserve a rental, but I consider Confessions to be a disappointment.
Viewer Film Ratings: 3 Stars|| Number of Votes: 8|