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Romantic delusions: Barrymore and Rockwell in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

American Psycho
By Shawn Stone

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Directed 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 Show).

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 “Charlie Kaufmann.”

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.

Like Pulling Teeth

Darkness Falls
Directed 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 dust.

—Ralph Hammann

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