For her third re-view at 10YA, Betsy Cass takes on her second Charlie Kaufman-penned film this month and comes out with some sharp advice for director George Clooney.

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Looking back at Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, I was having trouble finding why I had liked it in the first place. That’s not to say there’s nothing to like, but rather, I couldn’t really figure out why it had appealed to me ten years ago. Then I got to the final act of the film and what I still think is the finest scene George Clooney has ever directed. It was at that point that I realized I’ve probably been unknowingly admiring the film for its incredible strangeness more than its quality.

Even with Clooney’s power, which is debatably even greater than it was a decade ago, I don’t think this film would get made today. If it was, it certainly wouldn’t receive as wide a release.  That said, the film was mired in development for quite a while: long enough for me to build up a great anticipation, especially at the chance to see Sam Rockwell carrying a film. Already a huge fan, I was convinced this movie would make him a star. At the time, I thought he was perfect in the role. In retrospect, I see Rockwell in the part instead of Chuck Barris. My respect for Rockwell has faded considerably to the point where I think of him as an animated, but very limited, performer rather than an extremely talented up and comer.

Of course the film didn’t make him a star (he’s billed third on the DVD cover behind Drew Barrymore and then George Clooney). It was surely a box office disappointment and I recall critical response being pretty tepid at the time. Originally, I was baffled by that response, but now I understand it perfectly. Without its weirdness, the film isn’t up to much. Presumably it is the story of Chuck Barris’s double life as a game show host and CIA assassin, but even these major parts of his life are given pretty cursory screen time. The film meanders forward without building momentum. You really never get the sense that any given scene is important to the story.

The weirdness, though, somehow seems much weirder than when I originally saw it. When I was younger, I thought the film was funny and acerbic. Now I’m surprised at how perverse and mean spirited the whole thing is. While Barris may have seemed mysterious or intriguing to me before, now he (or at least Rockwell’s version of him) comes off as a complete creep. But the refusal to present a charismatic or sympathetic lead is the least of what the film does to feel strange and alienating. Whole swaths of it are shot in painful pastel chrominance. The comedy is often wince-inducing instead of laugh-inducing. This is especially true of any portrayals of Chuck “at work” for the CIA: not the zany send-ups of proper spying I remember, but instead strangely sadistic and meaningless vignettes. The sheer amount of nude Rockwell in it is pretty notable for any mainstream Hollywood film, as is the violence that falls somewhere between gleeful and in terrible taste (the film on the whole isn’t very violent, but it has a really problem with understanding how to portray it).

That’s all before we get to the final act. This is the only bit of the film that still spoke to me ten years on. There’s no longer a facade that the film is a comedy. What the viewer is left with is bleak and misanthropic. It begins with the aforementioned “greatest scene” of Clooney’s. Clooney plays Jim Byrd, Barris’s CIA handler. He has come to warn Barris that a mole is murdering assassins. He sits on the diving board above Barris’s pool, which is brilliantly illuminated in the night. Byrd’s warnings are calm but urgent. When they are over, Byrd is dead, having slowly bled to death into the pool. It’s as grim and disturbing as anything in a horror film. And from this point on, the film never looks back. Barris becomes paranoid and unhinged, imagining his entire Gong Show audience lying dead and bloodied. At his wedding he sees the faces of those he’s killed as well as Byrd’s. Finally, the film concludes with Barris revealing his idea for a show called The Old Game: three men are given guns and allowed to look back on their lives. The last one standing wins. Not exactly the comedy we all remember, is it?

Understandably, the film wanted to cover everything, including Barris’s shifting moods. Rather than finding dramatic conflict in them, it ends up feeling schizophrenic. I would have gladly watched a comedy about Chuck Barris as creator of The Dating Game, or watched a dark drama about the demons behind The Gong Show host. By trying to cover it all, the film spreads itself too thin. While I may have appreciated it for its individual merits in the past, today it doesn’t hang together enough. That said, I still think it’s the best directorial work Clooney has ever done. It may not have properly congealed, but at least Confessions was a difficult film that was attempting to do something different. There’s a great movie in there somewhere, but this isn’t it. It lacks screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s regular wit. The fact that the weighty ending arrives without revelation makes the whole affair confusing instead of fulfilling. However, when it hits the right notes the film presents a surprisingly unique and disturbing vision that makes it worth watching.

Stray Notes:

-At the time, I thought the film visually resembled Soderbergh too strongly, especially given his and Clooney’s buddy buddy nature. Now I feel like Soderbergh wouldn’t be caught dead making a movie that looked like this.

-I’d love to see Clooney go back to more challenging work like Confessions in the future. He can’t seem to balance weight and wit in his films. While this one at least made an attempt, his others have been light and disposable or overwrought.

-I was reminded a bit of another Rockwell film, Seven Psychopaths, while writing this review. It’s a film that seems to have many of the same problems with the screenplay. It was not nearly as funny or interesting as it thought it was, but it did have a few moments of drop dead gorgeous brilliance. That film hit the mark far less frequently than Confessions.

-I was pretty shocked to see Michael Cera as young “Strawberry Dick” Barris.

– Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her second appearance as a behind the scenes assistant in a Charlie Kaufman movie in one month.

-I often forget Julia Roberts is in this movie. I also often forget how much I truly hate her as an actress. Thank God she’s basically retired now.

-Clooney called in a lot of friends for this one, but I do still get a kick out of the silent cameos from Brad Pitt and Matt Damon as spurned Dating Game contestants.

Not pictured, Pitt or Damon.
Not pictured, Pitt or Damon.
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