delusions: Barrymore and Rockwell in Confessions of a
of a Dangerous Mind
by George Clooney
It’s a wonderfully nutty concept: Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell),
millionaire TV producer of seminal ’60s and ’70s game shows,
was also an assassin for the Central Intelligence Agency who
killed 33 (or 34) people.
You don’t have to know who Barris is to get the joke—but it
helps. He’s often credited and condemned as the father of
today’s reality TV. His hugely successful shows made him rich,
and earned the scorn of TV critics for “debasing” the medium.
Offering a kind of reality TV in quiz-show form, Barris made
it possible for people to salaciously evaluate the opposite
sex (The Dating Game); trade personal details of their
married life for a new refrigerator (The Newlywed Game);
and parade their lack of talent for public scorn (The Gong
In this bizarre version of his life, Barris alternated between
creating hit shows and killing enemies of the state. So, along
with fictionalized versions of real people like his girlfriend
Penny (a charming Drew Barrymore), there is his cold-as-ice
CIA handler Byrd (George Clooney), a wistful, alcoholic fellow
assassin (Rutger Hauer), and a Mata Hari-style femme fatale
(Julia Roberts). It’s even more odd than it sounds—and twice
as much fun.
The film is full of wonderfully conceived sly jokes. When
Barris leaves the CIA’s murder school, he wishes good luck
to his fellow students “Jack” and “Lee.” Does it matter that
this takes place a year or so after the Kennedy assassination,
when Ruby was dying of cancer and Oswald was six feet under?
No—it’s all part of the film’s cracked window on the decade,
and is very funny. Reality is tenuous in the film anyway.
The story spans a period from the mid-’50s to the late ’70s
without showing any of the characters age a day: They’re merely
the products of a dangerous mind.
On this level, the film is an elaborate riff on the intersection
between history and pop culture. Just as the sets for Barris’
shows are lovingly re-created, so too is the rancid Cold War
paranoia of the day. The joke is that the CIA view of the
world, with enemies everywhere, is as reductive as The
Newlywed Game’s take on marriage.
As someone who watched The Gong Show faithfully every
day after school (and found it utterly hilarious), I can attest
that Rockwell’s impersonation of the goofball impresario is
dead-on. The film’s Barris is more than a goofball, however:
He’s a hard-driving producer, an unapologetic womanizer, a
literate man given to quoting Carlyle and Nabokov, a ruthless
murderer, and a raving paranoiac. Rockwell is superb portraying
every side of Barris’ fractured personality.
Charlie Kaufmann, of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation
infamy, penned the script. There are the usual pointless Kaufmann
inside jokes—like the presence of Maggie Gyllenhaal in a cameo
as a script girl, the same part she played in Adaptation—but
his intricate meta-mythologizing is largely successful. Where
Adaptation collapsed under the weight of the lead character’s
uninteresting neuroses, Confessions is sturdily built
on the self-doubt and paranoia of a fascinating character.
Put bluntly, as fictional autobiography goes, “Chuck Barris”
proves a hell of a lot more interesting than Adaptation’s
First-time director Clooney can be credited for more than
a few things, too. Aside from his star power, which guaranteed
the casting of top names like Roberts and Barrymore, Clooney
uses an interesting color scheme for each section of Barris’
life. First among his achievements, however, is that he had
the sense to leave the film open to interpretation. Is Barris
telling the truth? The filmmakers cagily present three options.
One, Barris is just plain lying, conjuring a fabulous past
out of the ruins of his life and career. Two, Barris is delusional,
and his hitman fantasies are a projection of paranoia and
psychosis. Three, Barris killed 33 (or 34) people for the
CIA. Which is true? In the terrific Confessions of a Dangerous
Mind, the answer is irrelevant.
by Jonathan Liebesman
This rather bloodless ghost story is graced with a genuinely
creepy prologue in which we are given the history of the small
New England coastal town of Darkness Falls. The narration
is spoken over sepia-toned photographs of 19th-century children
who look like refugees from Edward Gorey picture books. There
is also a photograph of the puckered-cheeked old woman, Matilda
Dixon, who despite her kindness has a similarly unsettling
look. Called the Tooth Fairy, Matilda gave the children gold
coins for their baby teeth, but found herself something of
an outsider following a fire that burned away her face. Thereafter,
she donned a porcelain mask hiding her hideous face from tender
eyes and painful rays of light.
Unjustly blamed for the disappearance of two children who
were merely lost in the woods, Matilda was hanged, and left
the town with a curse: When a child lost his or her final
baby tooth, Matilda would appear as an evil tooth fairy and
kill the child if it chanced to see her face. As it is carried
out in the subsequent scenes, the curse seems haphazardly
implemented, and the film suffers from a logic gap bigger
than that in David Letterman’s smile.
At first the film holds promise with the introduction of the
central characters, Kyle (Joshua Anderson), a 10-year-old
boy, and Caitlin (Emily Browning), the object of his burgeoning
puppy love. The child actors have charm and intelligence;
unfortunately, their relationship is interrupted after Kyle
suffers a traumatic incident with the Tooth Fairy that leaves
him homeless and forever afraid of the dark. The film knowingly
posits a guilt with adults who don’t acknowledge children’s
fears—in Kyle’s case, the whole episode could so easily have
been avoided if his mother had only turned on the lights to
see what was troubling him instead of stupidly insisting on
walking down a dark hall.
After the film jumps 12 years into the future, the engaging
children are replaced by less-effective adult actors. As Caitlin,
Emma Caulfield is not bad but suffers from an underwritten
part. Chaney Kley, however, is far too toothless and uncompelling
to engender any empathy as the grown, stubble-cheeked Kyle.
Still, the film has a modicum of originality for the genre
and mercifully doesn’t end with the customary explosions and
conflagrations (although I don’t see how the latter are logically
avoided). And the fairy-cum-witch is a frightful creature
accompanied by unnerving sound-effects and wisely kept a shadowy
presence for maximum effect. Had the characters in peril been
as carefully wrought as the special effects, this could have
been a nail-biter; as it was, only a few hangnails bit the