A game-show host who performs hits for the CIA? But is it any more crazy than slipping into the head of John Malkovich? Any crazier than writer Susan Orlean screwing a gap-toothed orchid thief and then trying to cover up the affair by trying to murder a screenwriter?
No wonder screenwriter Charlie Kaufman took on the adaptation of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind at about the same time he spun storytelling gold with the amazing Adaptation.
At first blush, the stars of Confessions would be its star Sam Rockwell -- who has come out of nowhere to turn in a valiant performance of sleazeball game-show guru Chuck Barris -- or George Clooney -- who has come out of nowhere to turn in a commendable directing debut (and supporting performance). But Charlie Kaufman has his paw prints all over this one, and he is the real reason why Confessions is so dynamic a work. It's Kaufman's world; Sam Rockwell and George Clooney just (happily) live in it -- or channel it.
It is Kaufman who constantly wrestles with the notions of identity, reality and celebrity and how all three can become pureed in the blender that is entertainment. If his works appear self-indulgent, self-referential (oh, pick your self prefix), look at what this self is coming up with. Kaufman didn't just get inside the head of John Malkovich; from that unique vantage point, he gave us a view of ourselves, of our fascination with things that, upon closer look, are mundane. Being John Malkovich bears a false promise -- and yet, being ourselves remains as scary as ever.
In Adaptation, Kaufman moved from novel idea to ideas about novels, or how to make them visual. He ratcheted up our perception of identity, of personal evolution, and how we use our imagination to make life, any life, more interesting.
And here he checks in with the life of Chuck Barris, who, initially, doesn't seem like much to explore. If all Barris did was concoct three of the most culturally deprived game shows of all time -- and that's another debate for another time -- what's the big deal?
Kaufman, lifting from Barris' "unauthorized autobiography," will tell you what. What if Barris really was a hitman for the CIA, as he claims in his book (and as Clooney and Rockwell illustrate in a series of wacked-out wackings)? Kaufman takes the question one step further: What if he wasn't? The strength of Barris was his lewd, crude, bizarre imagination; the demons inside his head concocted game shows that seemingly demythologized the ritual of dating (The Dating Game), questioned the validity of early-marriage familiarity (The Newlywed Game), and mocked the American obsession with fame (The Gong Show).
Could not such a dangerous mind concoct a separate life -- a separate life -- that mocks the value of human life by ending it? After all, in a smaller way -- and a Playboy bunny accuses him of as much in one of the movie's best scene -- isn't that what Barris did with his game shows?
But I wax philosophical and slightly existential. Not unlike Adaptation, you don't have to go deep to enjoy Confessions. Because, like his mentor Steven Soderbergh, Clooney knows how to deliver the stylistic goods by simply crafting his way through the film.
In flashback form, Clooney traces Barris' humble beginnings as a schlep with an appetite for sex and fame in the late 1950s, penning pop songs while trying to find a break in the business of show. Along the way, we learn he's had a dubious childhood, and that he's fearless if clueless when it comes to picking up women -- finally meeting a simpatico partner in Penny (Drew Barrymore). Rockwell carries off Barris' uncouth ways with an engaging, loopy charm. His face floats in some Bermuda Triangle between Rick Moranis, Giovanni Ribisi and Gary Oldman; one part misfit, one part stoner, and one part menace to society.
As his unlikely TV career blossoms, Barris (according to Barris) is spotted by a CIA spook Jim Byrd (a moustached Clooney), who decides to recruit Barris for hits of various international bad guys. Why, Barris asks, beating us to the punch. "Because you fit the profile," Clooney replies countless times, setting up the obviously implicit third-act revelation.
And so the farce goes. Barris served as an escort for the couples on their Dating Game getaways to places set up by Byrd to make the hits more convenient. While moonlighting in the mayhem Barris runs into fellow murderers Keeler (Rutger Hauer) and Patricia (Julia Roberts) -- the latter of whom beds Barris apparently to kill time in between killing people -- setting up one bizarre love-hate triangle.
The resolution? See Penny's face toward the end of the movie, which all but gives away the punchline. Is truth stranger than fiction? In Charlie Kaufman's world, truth and fiction are equally strange, and his for the taking.
- Penny for your thoughts: Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) tries to juggle another assassination assignment and the overtures of his girlfriend Penny (Drew Barrymore) in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.