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Clever Clooney 

A review of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (R)
Miramax Films

Somewhere in the press of the Christmas movie season, a really well-made, funny and incisive movie got released and then lost in the far corridors of Tinseltown.

Maybe Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is too artsy for the masses, or maybe it is too uncomfortable to take a trip down memory lane into the not-so-distant progenitors of today's reality shows, or maybe a biopic of Chuck Barris (creator and host of The Gong Show, as well as creator of The Newlywed Game and The Dating Game) isn't sexy enough to command center stage, but by God it should. This directorial debut by George Clooney is one terrific movie.

Loosely based on Chuck Barris' first autobiography titled Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (there was a second autobiography as well), it takes the pulse of post-WWII America with its new love for television, its cold-war paranoia, its transition from buttoned-down morality to free-wheeling free love and its delicious (sad?) hunger for instant fame regardless how humiliating (can you say Survivor?) The film follows Barris (Sam Rockwell) from lonely Philadelphia kid to Hollywood wheeler-dealer through the path of crass daytime television. At the same time, the film explores Barris' delusion (apparently detailed in his first autobiography and completely ignored in his second) that he was a CIA operative paid to kill people to keep the world safe from communism.

This is a terrific subject, providing all sorts of insights into an American psyche full of lust and paranoia, violence and crass humor.

Clooney and cinematographer Newton Thomas Siegel reinforce the weirdness of Barris and, by extension, America, by insisting that we see this film as an artifact, a made object. Through adept use of various film and lighting styles (close head-shot "documentary" interviews with the cast of The Gong Show, color-saturated '70s television sets, gritty black-and-white spy vs. spy sequences, etc.) Clooney focuses audience attention on the visual aspect of the film, and his part in making it.

This type of "look, folks, it's really a film" can get very tiresome very quickly, but Clooney (and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman) manage to avoid the tedious cleverer-than-thou trap through two acts of artistic generosity. First, they give the audience most of the tools necessary to "read" the film and thus to become participants in judging this life: famous actors appear in silly cameos, the CIA training is almost ridiculous, his CIA contact seems more like a mind reader than a spook.

Second, Clooney treats Barris -- who is in many ways a rather contemptible character -- with humor and sympathy by containing Sam Rockwell and never allowing his character to go over the top. Rockwell's performance is fabulous -- restrained, funny and sad. Drew Barrymore as Barris' sweet and hard-done-to girlfriend seems so natural that we can flat-out forget she's an actress.

This juxtaposition of obvious self-conscious filmmaking with "realistic" acting makes Confessions of a Dangerous Mind both interesting to watch and emotional to feel. In this first film, Clooney has managed a difficult balancing act, and if he can keep it up in subsequent films, this reviewer will be a happy camper indeed.

-- Andrea Lucard

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