Chuck Barris was an American genius of vulgarity, a descendent of the impresario/con men satirized and celebrated by Mark Twain. Relocate such low-brow flair into the '70s, the cultural domain of Philip Roth, Paddy Chayefsky and Thomas Pynchon, and naturally you get a neurotic and sex-crazed Jew who produces absurd TV shows and gets involved with the CIA on the side. Originator of such reviled cultural landmarks as The Dating Game and The Gong Show, Barris, disgraced (he was named by one newspaper the "Downfall of Western Civilization") and long forgotten, pens an autobiography (the veracity of which is flimsy at best), lamenting the waste of all his lofty dreams and infinite potential.
We open on a middle-aged Barris (Sam Rockwell) standing naked, staring at a television. In an odd visual gag, a cleaning lady passes right by him, vacuuming. His old girlfriend Penny (Drew Barrymore) comes for him, but he rejects her. Flashback to a young Barris, trying to get laid and only succeeding after he gets a job at NBC by lying on his résumé. The narrative is interspersed with overexposed "documentary" segments of interviews with people who knew Barris, like Dick Clark and Gong Show regulars. They all talk about what a suspicious and disturbing man he was. Rockwell's performance is similarly unnerving, playing Barris as rather awkward and repressed, but with occasional quirks and fey histrionics that might add up to some explosion. CIA recruiter Jim Byrd (George Clooney) senses an appetite for savagery in Barris and makes an assassin out of him; following Barris's book, we watch as he rather ludicrously chaperones the contestants of The Dating Game to Helsinki and guns down commies in the night. In the proper key, these disparate elements could be harmonized into the stuff of great black comedy, but the "secret agent" portions of the film are never convincing, though they are entertaining. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, adapted by Charlie Kaufman from the book by Barris and directed by George Clooney, both TV veterans themselves, succeeds, as it should, in almost every way, and yet feels a bit empty. Throughout Confessions' troubled but generally slapstick-ironical tone is the hint of a dreadful greatness that never quite comes in sight. I suppose there's just not enough passion. It has all the material that drives Portnoy's Complaint, Network, and Gravity's Rainbow into their sublime frenzies, but lacks the urgency. Kaufman's screenplay doesn't strike at the heart of the matter, Clooney is too infatuated with virtuosity in his direction, and Sam Rockwell is able to give Barris subtlety but not a soul.
The film never does what we might have hoped Kaufman especially would be perfect for. It doesn't probe what possesses people like Barris, or his lesser descendants Jerry Springer, Adam Corolla, and Jimmy Kimmel, to produce trash much less what possesses people like us to eat it up with relish. Barris's life in the movie progresses not like a human life but like a caricature driven by the insubstantial breeze of plot movement. His life and his "art" are linked in inane ways; for instance, the inspiration for the "Gong Show" came from the impulse to shoot a bad auditioner. Clooney gets away with this by making an extravagant set-piece out of the audition scene, and the transition to The Gong Show set is irresistible.
There is much to be said for Confessions as a comedy. Barris's pilot for The Dating Game is priceless, Kaufman drives the relationship between Chuck and Penny by a few deft interchanges which put the entire scripts of most romantic comedies to shame, and Clooney unpacks a surprising bag of visual tricks which succeed at least as often as they go overboard. Its decadently gorgeous cinematography keeps the viewer engaged, if the plot does not really absorb him. Where the film fails, ironically, is in trying to be about Barris's failure; in grasping its comedy so well, Kaufman and Clooney can't get ahold of the bitter edge of tragedy in Barris's tale. Comedy may be harder, but successful black comedy may be hardest of all.
Taken as a whole, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is rather less than the sum of its parts. As an enjoyable movie, Clooney's directorial debut deserves nothing but praise; like television itself, it is sleek and certainly entertaining, but shallow and inconsequential. Perhaps such an amusing anticlimax is appropriate for the downfall of Western Civilization.