In Baltimore, there is a visionary cultural institution with a distinguished name; in the local parlance, however, it is known as the Museum of Art by Crazy People. That is exactly where the world premiere of "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," George Clooney's take on Chuck Barris's autobiography, should have been held.
How crazy? Real crazy. Crazy like a crazy fox. Crazier than a crazy fox. This crazy: Chuck Barris invented "The Gong Show," but when the world ceased to pay attention to him, he announced in an autobiography his delirious fantasy that he had been an assassin for the CIA.
How do we know Barris's claim is screwball? Well, in the first place, I was an assassin for the CIA, and I never saw him hanging out in the halls at Langley or at the Company picnics or bowling league. We assassins had a killer bowling team at the Herndon Readi-Strike! We used to cream those wusses in Blackmail & Extortion!
In the second place . . . I mean, really. A quiz-show producer without language skills, local contacts, cover stories, meaningful clandestine training, escape routes, an emergency communications program, fallback plans . . . wandering the Third World, shooting people. What Barris seems not to understand is that the killing part is basically pretty easy; it's the getting in and getting out that marks the professional. I mean, really.
But the trick of the movie is that it takes this claim straight -- no ice, no chaser, no winks or nods. Do the moviemakers believe Barris? Not for a second. But they play it as he wrote it: the literal, deadpan story of a man who invented vulgar quiz shows, made millions, had sex with a lot of women, was widely castigated as a barbarian by the genteel elite -- and killed people for the CIA, until a nervous breakdown caused him to confront and recount it all (helpfully providing the flashback structure for the film). It's so hard being Chuck Barris!
A character actor named Sam Rockwell -- you won't remember him, but you'll remember the characters he played, such as the demented tag-along in "Galaxy Quest" -- is excellent and commanding in his promotion to main man. He has one of those memorably unmemorable faces so helpful to an actor, so debilitating to a star. He gets Chuck's desperate insecurity, his bohemian rhapsodies, his haunted nature, his drive, his strange capacity to take drivel dead seriously. But Rockwell, though he's onscreen in every scene, is possibly the least provocative of the four personalities that haunt the enterprise, the other three being Barris himself, director/co-star Clooney and, oddly, the co-producer, Steven Soderbergh.
You feel Barris everywhere in the film, which is essentially a plunge into the strangeness of the mind he self-advertises as "dangerous." When people call themselves "dangerous," aren't they really flattering themselves as well as marketing a product? Who would read a book or see a movie titled "Confessions of an Essentially Harmless Schnook"?
On the facts, Chuck Barris had a cunning mind, a clever mind, a greedy mind, an ambitious mind -- even, you might say, a natural television mind; but he was about as dangerous as Dick Clark, though not as smart. His most salient charm was his utter lack of charm, which made him seem almost like a naif -- when he was actually a ganef and the public was his mark. As the movie chronicles vividly enough, he was an ambitious Philadelphia hustler who caught on in the early '60s at a network, where he proved a quick study at cheapo production. But he kept losing jobs as policies and politics changed, and he understood soon enough that working at the network wasn't the answer: Selling to the network was the answer.
He had energy, he had deep conviction in the shallowness of his purpose, and he had relentlessness. Here's what part of "No" he didn't understand: All of it. Finally, in 1966, he sold "The Dating Game," based on a shrewd principle: Nothing sells like sexual yearning. If you can fake that, you can make a fortune. The show trafficked in stupidity, inanity, smarmy double-entendre, and the rest, of course, is hysteria. "The Newlywed Game" followed, then his masterwork, "The Gong Show," which he himself, in a frenzy of narcissism, hosted.
That's the Chuck Barris we know and love: slightly cute, slightly cuddly, completely disengaged, doing inappropriate stuff with his hands and his hair, coming across as the world's first game show anti-host, in his way as pathetic as the contestants, those pathetic samples of rejected tissue who showed up for the masochistic pleasure of being destroyed by such giants of entertainment as Jaye P. Morgan and Rex Reed. My favorite -- from a wasted young manhood spent watching too many "Gong Shows" -- was a pitiful guy who sang a song called "I'm Just an Old Weakie," "weakie" being a synonym for "weakling," a word for which he couldn't find a rhyme. He lasted one refrain before being gonged back to richly deserved oblivion.
During all this, Chuck claims, he was killing people overseas.
Clooney, to his credit, doesn't blink at this absurd assertion. He seems to get a deeper truth, which is that Barris's fantasies about himself are more revealing than the facts about him. One is left in some sort of pitiful awe at Barris's childish fantasy that expresses itself in godlike identification with the assassin. What secret rages, what deep feelings of hostility, inferiority, exile and self-hatred he must feel to see the pinnacle of his existence that moment when he points the silenced Walther, there's a pffft, and one less American enemy breathes the free air of Earth. And how sad that a man who engineered the moment when Rex Reed gonged Mr. Weakie would stoop so low!
I suppose this substructure of fantasy provides another insight: Chuck's fantasy life was as banal as his game show life. He was incapable of transcending the infantile; he represented, in fact, a sort of deification of the infantile. He proved it was possible to make it as a baby-man in America.
The fantasy provides the film with something real lives seldom do: a narrative structure. The re-creations of show-biz Chuck, his anguish at the flak he took from the intelligentsia, his off-again, on-again relationship with a free spirit named Penny (played amiably enough by Drew Barrymore) are all fine as far as they go, which isn't very far. They are merely accounts. You can't build a movie on accounts.
Meanwhile, the spook stuff, though less interesting, is carrying the movie. Say this for Clooney and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (yes, that Charlie Kaufman, of "Adaptation" and "Being John Malkovich," who knows a thing or two about untruth and consequences), they recognize a story when they see one. As Clooney tells it, a case officer named Jim Byrd (Clooney himself, ominously alpha-maleish behind Lord Kitchener's mustache) recruits Chuck, and sends him on his way on a variety of little pffft-hits. Why, even the international dates for big-time "Dating Game" winners were coverups for kills. While in that world, Chuck meets other killers, notably Keeler (old Rutger Hauer, answering the "Whatever became of?" question), and especially one femme fatale or dame de la morte, Patricia, played whimsically by Julia Roberts behind slit eyes, lots of hip language and an I-am-available attitude that stands up and shouts.
Of course these varying plot strands tangle, as all good plot strands must: While "The Gong Show" is going through the ratings roof, one of these killers turns out to be a mole -- anticipating by three decades the important cultural development of ABC's "Celebrity Mole" -- and starts killing the others. So Chuck has not only got to think up new game shows, he's got to find and kill a killer! Holy tamales, Batman, no wonder he had a nervous breakdown.
Well, it's fun. You won't believe a second of the killing stuff; you won't deny a second of the television stuff. But all the time you're asking yourself another fundamental question, which is, who directed this movie?
The credits say George Clooney, but the movie says Steven Soderbergh. That is, the film arrives in what might be called the Soderbergh house style: long somber takes, silence, misdirection, a sense of serene irony. And of course the movie is filled with Soderbergh house stars: Clooney and Roberts, for instance, and little inside movie tricks so Soderesque, as when a "Dating Game" contestant passes on two choices impersonated by Brad Pitt and Matt Damon (who both appeared with Clooney in Soderbergh's "Ocean's Eleven") and picks a schlub instead.
So this leaves us with a picture that is surely one of the oddest ever made: It's the story of a man who wasn't there by a director who may not have been there either, in which the one moment of genuineness is provided by "The Gong Show."
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (113 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence, sex and coarse language.