IN AN ERA WHEN UNPRODUCED SCRIPTS wash ashore like so much flotsam, a rare handful take on the stature of legends. They're passed around like runic texts, called brilliant by people who've never actually read them, and offered as further proof that Hollywood prefers dreck to genius. For the last several years, no screenplay has come more glazed in myth than Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, based on the 1984 autobiography of game-show guru Chuck Barris, a volume widely thought to have set new standards for apocrypha. The script was written by Charlie Kaufman who, after years of being considered too wiggy for Hollywood, now seems as inescapable as a Miramax Oscar campaign. Human Nature, which he wrote, came out last April. Adaptation, which he adapted, came out two weeks ago. And now, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is finally making it onto the screen, putting its legend to the proof.
The movie begins in 1981 with Barris (Sam Rockwell) standing naked in a New York hotel room, looking as scraggly and nuts as any Howard Hughes. The jaded among us will assume that this has something to do with drugs, but as Barris begins typing his memoirs, which leap from topic to topic like a flea in a kennel, we slowly realize that he's claiming something much, much crazier. Not only is he the creator of The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show, he supposedly leads a second life — as a CIA assassin! Run by a mustachioed spook played by George Clooney, he whacks people in Mexico and Berlin, pretends to chaperone Dating Game winners as a cover for his murderous forays abroad, and eventually sinks into paranoid episodes so feverish they make Larry David look as mellow as Dean Martin. Who can blame Barris for thinking the world's out to get him? When not busy killing foreigners for the CIA (three of the letters in cocaine, by the way), Barris — as the king of trash TV — is destroying Western civilization.
Of course, one reason legendary scripts often remain unproduced is that they're hard as hell to pull off. (The screenplay of Romeo Is Bleeding — remember it? — was once a legend.) To get made, they need to be taken up by someone with nothing to lose — someone like Clooney, who makes the brashest directorial debut by a movie star in Hollywood history. When most actors start directing, they play it safe, sticking to actors' showcases with simple setups. Not so Clooney, who trots out the sort of stylistic pyrotechnics you find in the souped-up new musical Chicago, bleaching out colors, elaborately choreographing scenes in which weeks pass in a single long take, and blurring his settings so that Barris can step out of a room in one city and onto a fantastical street on another continent. Clooney's daring doesn't stop there. In Sam Rockwell, he's chosen a lead actor who was born with — how to put this? — the face of a real asshole. And this choice is vindicated. Rockwell delivers a performance admirable in its hustling sweatiness — his impression of Barris as Gong Show host is impeccable.
But while the movie is extremely watchable, with sharp one-liners and funny cameos by A-list Hollywood hunks, all its manic time-leaps and reality-shifts can't disguise the fact that Confessions is ultimately just another celebrity bio-pic, and far less trenchant than, say, the more conventional Auto Focus. For all their whirring ingenuity, Kaufman's scripts require a director who will tether his cleverness to reality. Spike Jonze has done this for Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, whose wildest conceits come off because they are played straight. But like director Michel Gondry (scheduled to direct Kaufman's next legendary script) in Human Nature, Clooney mistakenly ratchets up what's already over-the-top. Neither the filmmakers nor the audience actually believes Barris' guff about the CIA, but for the story to grip us, we must believe that Barris believes it. For all its inspirational hokum, A Beautiful Mind took care to make us see what John Nash saw — we understood what was flipping him out. Not so in Confessions, whose bloody CIA fantasies carry no emotional weight because they keep descending into theatrical black comedy (not least in Julia Roberts' mirthless foundering as a Cold War Mata Hari). We simply don't care what happens.
JUST AS ADAPTATION'S FINEST SCENES FOCUS on the real-world story of The Orchid Thief — Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper give that movie its soul — so Confessions' best moments are the most modest. There's a delicate, world-weary piece of acting by Rutger Hauer (where's he been?) as a Berlin assassin with a startling resemblance to spy novelist John le Carré. And the movie is practically stolen by Drew Barrymore as Barris' longtime girlfriend Penny, who first turns up as a latter-day beatnik. (“I'm into the brotherhood of man,” she says blithely. “I fucked an Oriental last week.”) Later, she becomes a hippie with “Sunshine Superman” blasting on her stereo. No matter what, she stands by her crazy, self-absorbed man. What lingers in Barrymore's performance is her warmth, vulnerability and decency. In a movie that exhausts itself (and us) trying to be dazzlingly original, her simplicity makes Penny a beacon of humanity in Barris' Gong Show world.
CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND | Directed by GEORGE CLOONEY | Written by CHARLES KAUFMAN, from the book by Chuck Barris | Produced by ANDREW LAZAR and STEVEN REUTHER | Released by Miramax Pictures | At selected theaters