Your Father's "Jackass" : Em-Barris-ment for all concerned
At first glance you may think Chuck Barris deserves Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Has there ever been a more negative biography of a living person, other than a politician perhaps? Has anyone, again outside of politics, ever been more deserving of a negative biography than the man who foisted The Gong Show, The Dating Game, and The Newlywed Game on the American public?
On the other hand, the publicity generated by the movie can only help Barris, increasing the amount his reruns net him from the Game Show Network. He'll even be able to quit his job at the car wash.
Confessions... was adapted by Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation) from Barris' "unauthorized autobiography," which details his wet dream of having been recruited by the CIA to work as a hitman.
So far so good; that premise just might work. But the execution– fuggedaboudit. The framework sequence is set in a sleazy hotel in New York in 1981, where Barris (Sam Rockwell) is standing around naked (apparently his favorite mode of... undress) with the TV on when Penny (Drew Barrymore) comes begging him to marry her.
Flashbacks take us back several decades to the start of Chuck's downward spiral of sex obsession when, as an adolescent, he cons a blowjob out of his sister's girlfriend. This will later earn him the nickname "Strawberry Dick."
In 1955, believing television has a future, he takes an entry-level position at NBC in New York. Things don't work out, and six years later he's back in Philadelphia. There, while cruising amusement parks for young girls, he writes "Palisades Park," which becomes a hit for Freddy Cannon.
While dating Debbie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Chuck meets her roommate, Penny, beginning an open relationship that spans at least two decades. He returns to New York, and his career takes off when he sells The Dating Game. It's around this time that CIA agent Jim Byrd (George Clooney) hires him as an "independent contract agent." The idea appeals to Barris, who sees it as a chance to "get to f*** beautiful Eastern European women."
The careers mesh when Jim suggests upping the prizes on The Dating Game to trips abroad, with Chuck going along as chaperone to cover his real assignments in such "romantic" spots as Helsinki and West Berlin. Wherever he goes, he seems to run into the mysterious Patricia (Julia Roberts), who becomes sort of a secondary love interest.
Up to this point, the movie is intermittent fun, with more good scenes than bad, but the balance shifts as a subplot takes over about a mole in the organization who starts killing agents, with Chuck fearing he could be next. In the meantime, he goes from producing to becoming an on-air personality as host of The Gong Show, the Jackass of its day.
Rockwell is so convincingly despicable as Chuck Barris he's almost painful to watch. That's a tribute to his acting, I guess. Barrymore, on the other hand, is almost consistently lovable and adorable while going through the many changes a person went through in the '60s and '70s. Clooney does what he had to do so his name could help get the picture financed. As for Roberts, who worked six days on the movie, she doesn't have a handle on her character and just walks through the part changing wigs until her final scene, in which she does some real acting.
Clooney makes his directing debut with mixed results. He does some interesting, fluid transitions between scenes that make you want to rewind to see how they were accomplished, but he lacks an overall sense of the style and tone he wants the picture to have.
With Clooney directing, Steven Soderbergh as executive producer, Clooney and Roberts in the cast, and cameos by Brad Pitt and Matt Damon (the film's funniest moment), there seems to be a new "pack" emerging in Hollywood along the lines of the Rat Pack and Brat Pack. Perhaps Chuck Barris could develop a "Name that Pack" game show. In the meantime I'll offer a suggestion: The Un-Pack.
And if they can't make better movies than Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (and Full Frontal), they needn't bother to.