Dangerous Games: Revisiting George Clooney, Chuck Barris, et al.

When you treat movies like Play-Doh, throwing them at movie screens by the fistful and standing by whichever ones happen to stick, something deserving is bound to fall to the ground and get squished by the weight of a paternal shoe, flattened under the impression of its maker’s logo. That logo, not surprisingly, reads “Miramax,” and the latest victim of its branding has — until now — been George Clooney’s directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, released by the studio briefly at the end of last year, but quickly forgotten about in the rush-to-Oscar-glory that was Chicago and Gangs of New York. Not that Confessions did terribly: It made no less money than Clooney’s more expensive, more heavily promoted starring vehicle Solaris had a few months earlier. But by the time the world had turned its attention to the movie, the movie was gone, and there would be no Academy-friendly ad campaign to bring it back.

Conceivably, the story might have ended there. We live, after all, in an age when theatrical releases of films are, increasingly, little more than one part of an immaculately tailored campaign for a movie’s video and cable afterlife. And why not? As I am writing this very column, it is being reported that none other than Solaris has grossed more in its first week of DVD release than it did during the entirety of its late-fall theatrical run. Yet Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is back in theaters this weekend. Not many theaters: just a handful in a scattering of major cities. But back in play nonetheless, and this may be where being released by Miramax turns out to be the best thing that ever happened to this movie. For where re-releases of films were, in the pre-video era, no uncommon thing, the practice has all but vanished in modern times — with the very notable exception of those fabulous Weinstein brothers, who never miss a trick when it comes to wringing every last possible dime from a movie. Hence, second helpings of everything from Life Is Beautiful (with an English-dialogue soundtrack advertised as “better” than the original Italian) to Chicago (with the restoration of a musical number that had once been deleted because it supposedly — impossible as it may seem — slowed the movie down).

Back to Confessions of a Dangerous Mind — an uncommonly ambitious debut by any standard, let alone that of movies made by actors-turned-directors. The screenplay, by Charlie Kaufman, is a brilliant expansion and filling-in of Chuck Barris’ amorphous autobiography — the one in which Barris claims to have been a top-secret CIA assassin at the same time that he produced a slew of infamously crass television programs. As Barris, Sam Rockwell gives something that is less a performance than an inhalation of Barris’ hyperactive, narcissistic, self-destructive essence. But it’s Clooney’s always- inspired direction that lights the movie up; he seems to get high on Barris’ own unchecked ambition. And therein lies the thrill of the film: In Confessions, Clooney throws caution to the wind the way he does in his best acting work (The Perfect Storm, Solaris). It’s a movie that pays so little attention to pleasing anyone (other than its own creators) that you can scarcely believe someone, least of all Miramax, actually footed the bill.

That’s also what makes Confessions a tricky sell, its reappearance something of an unprecedented gesture of benevolence on Miramax’s behalf. Are Harvey and Bob merely paying belated lip service to the film, keen on keeping their shares in George Clooney, Inc.? Or are they giving Confessions a second chance because — in a rare, Irving Thalberg–worthy gesture — they really believe in it? I’d love to know the answer. Then again, I’ve never been one to look a gift-horse in the mouth.

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