A highly disarming dark comedy9/10
One of Charlie Kaufman's more overlooked and underrated screenplays, 'Confessions of a Dangerous Mind' may have been something of a departure from the high-concept experimentalism that made his previous brainchildren, 'Being John Malkovich' and 'Adaptation' (a masterpiece and a near-masterpiece, respectively) such striking breaths of fresh air, but on no account should its ability to engage and entertain on those strengths of its own be underestimated. Taking a well-earned break from the surreal situations and the complex plotting, Kaufman turned his attention here to a much more straightforward yarn that was better grounded in reality; the twist there being that it was based on a story that, while allegedly true, just as likely never happened. 'Confessions' though is willing to give Chuck Barris the benefit of the doubt in regards to his dubious claims to have been a secret assassin for the CIA in the midst of his days as a game show host, giving life to such controversial classic as 'the Gong Show' and 'the Dating Game' while taking it from a range of human targets around the globe. It sits back and lets the scenario unfold without question and does so with such considerable spirit and vigour that it's hard not to get lured in and pulled along for the ride. Regardless of whether the real-life Barris truly did have some incredible adventures within his time, or simply an overly-active imagination, this movie translates it into one heck of an enjoyable romp slick, stylish and entrancing on the surface, and with a bracingly poignant and sobering tale lurking underneath.
Kaufman continues to rule supreme with his flair for developing the most heavily flawed and eccentric of characters, investing them with witty dialogue and sharp situations and, as with his previous screenplays, the humour is a pleasantly mixed bag lightly amusing at some points, laugh-out-loud hilarious at others, even outright alarming whenever it needs to be. George Clooney's direction, meanwhile, though it stands a fair distance from the eye-seizing zippiness that we're used to seeing Spike Jonze apply to this writer's workings, is still an accomplished visual take on the material, made sensational by its meticulous attention to detail. Indeed, the film's fondness for subtle in-jokes, crafty cameos (some great ones among the Dating Game contestants absolutely great), background gags and general all-round intricacy is partly what makes it so rewarding and worthy of repeated viewings (I was watching it for what must have been sixth or seventh time last night, and still I found myself picking up a whole range of details that I somehow missed out on the first few times around). Sure, things can move a tad slowly every now and then, but with this number of niceties up there to be marvelled at you know you're never for a second going to be bored.
It also draws a fine contrast between the two separate pursuits that Chuck Barris is called to follow the game show scenes are colourful, light-hearted fun, the assassin scenes murky and deliciously paranoid, and Sam Rockwell, at the helm as our savvy and hapless main man, has the timing, the energy and the appeal to emerge from the two as both a comic figure and a tragic one. Kicking off as a likable, familiar kind of anti-hero, whose goofy grin and offhand ways have us smiling through the bar fights and the womanising, he gradually evolves into something more enigmatic and sorrowful; a lost, confused individual whose more innocuous contributions to society, in the form of lowbrow 'trash TV', are widely scorned (not that I've ever seen any of the genuine Chuck Barris's shows myself, but it would amaze me if they were really any worse than the kind of mind-numbing reality TV that's enjoyed popularity over the past few years), while the hidden talent he discovers in contract killing begins to understandably repulse him soon enough. One of the most effective things about 'Confessions' is just how deftly it uses its gags and its pathos, along with interview snippets from those who were acquainted with the real-life Barris, which punctuate the story at various points, to reflect upon this man, his life, and just how much he really achieved either way, arriving in the end at quite a biting conclusion. I don't think that any other rendition of 'If I had a Hammer' could feel nearly as sad and haunting as it does here.
Drew Barrymore and Clooney himself offer nice support all the while, each epitomising different ends of the Chuck Barris spectrum Barrymore, as Chuck's bubbly girlfriend Penny, is a fun-loving innocent; Clooney, as his CIA director, is aptly subtle and mysterious. But neither of them, or anyone else involved for a matter of fact, comes even close to upstaging Rockwell, whose input is simply fantastic there's no doubt in my mind that the Best Actor Award which, as the blurb on the DVD so proudly states, he picked up at the Berlin International Film Festival for his efforts, was well-and-truly earned.
It's not an innovative, far-out, one-of-a-kind experience (a la 'Being John Malkovich'). But it's an entertaining, well-made and entirely satisfying flick with one particularly brilliant stand-out performance, and that's more than enough to do the job. Kaufman can probably pen avant-garde better than anybody else today, but 'Confessions of a Dangerous Mind' goes to prove that, when in the right company, he can write 'normal' just as impressively.