Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND

5/10

USA 2002 : George CLOONEY : 113 mins

In Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, George Clooney again shows why he’s the most intriguing leading man Hollywood has had for some time its because he isn’t really a leading man at all, more of an old-school character actor who, through various quirks of nature and fame and after many false starts, has slowly graduated to megastar status. He pretty much steals the movie as unblinkingly steely CIA operative Jim Byrd, inveigling successful TV-game-show producer Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) into a second career as a globetrotting hitman for Uncle Sam.

Then again, in a way it is Clooneys own movie to steal Confessions is his directorial debut and, on this evidence, should perhaps also be his swansong on the wrong side of the camera. He displays classic symptoms of first-time-itis endless tricksy close-ups, angles and pans, plus counterproductive Reds-style cutaways to talking-head testimony from real life witnesses. The result is a curiously inert picture, not funny enough to be a comedy and too light to be taken seriously as a drama or thriller. Its a disappointment on many fronts Clooney seemed to have all the makings of a successful actor-turned-director, scriptwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation.) is easily among the most original in the business, and Barriss tale would seem to have the makings of a terrific movie.

His small-screen career is undoubtedly kosher, but the rest is, to put it mildly, a matter of debate. Kaufman and Clooney takes the story as recorded in Barriss unauthorised autobiography at poker-face value. As in the first half of A Beautiful Mind, there’s no tipping of the wink that the CIA high-jinks are anything but 100 per cent what they seem to be: we see Barris recruited (echoing Ed Harris in Beautiful Mind, Clooneys Byrd admires Barriss flair for problem solving), trained and sent out into the field where he’s aided by sultry agent Patricia (Julia Roberts, having fun in a vampy, campy minor role). His activities inevitably start impinging upon his normal life with long-time girlfriend and would-be Mrs Barris, Penny (Drew Barrymore) and when a fellow operative (Rutger Hauer, made up to look amusingly like Paul Verhoeven) is bumped off, Barriss mounting paranoia sets off a nervous breakdown.

Which is where, in 1981, the movie begins. Its a real let-down to see Kaufman resorting to the most tired format for this kind of pop-culture biopic: to start with an (unconvincingly) aged subject who, at the end of his tether, looks back over episodes of his life which unfold in chronological detail. And Barriss progress slots all too neatly into the hackneyed three act structure of struggle>success>disaster. Clooneys template would seem to be Boogie Nights (we even get a very P T Andersonish showbiz-party-at-the-poolside) but, sans flair, the results are much closer to The People vs Larry Flynt, Blow (from which the movie steals its end-with-a-still-of-the-real-bloke idea) or Catch Me If You Can.

The Spielberg movie keeps coming to mind again and again during Confessions Barriss entre into the world of NBC is straight from the Frank Abagnale passing-off textbook. More damagingly, cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel opts for the gauzy glow that was so ill-suited to Catch Me. Sigel also calls undue attention to his work by manipulating the colours throughout a yellowy, very Traffic-esque bleach during several Mexico sequences, and an even more distracting effect elsewhere in which the hues have a pastel-ish, artificial tint that recalls the clumsy colourisation process once applied to monochrome classics.

Its very hard to adjust to this mildly stylised look one of several factors that prevents the audience from fully engaging with the material. The film seems to take forever to get going, and even then never seems quite worth the effort needed to keep up. Rockwell gives his all in what is a real showcase role, Clooney is magnetic and Robert John Burke (Americas most underused actor) hits the comic bullseye in his brief appearances as a government hardass while Clooneys old pals Brad Pitt and Matt Damon are niftily deployed in a Dating Game segment. Otherwise, for a Kaufman script especially, the laughs are surprisingly few and far between and the spy stuff is even more awkwardly handled, especially late on. Barriss final meeting with Patricia constitutes a notably weak and derivative climax to what has become such an apparently interminable plodder that some viewers may even wish they could gong it off in the style of Barriss most famous show.

And whats this movie supposed to be about, in any case? At least in A Beautiful Mind the men-in-hats CIA shenanigans turned out to have a crucial, crowd-pleasing significance to how the film worked as a drama, and to the heros mental processes. Here, the hit-man angle is patently nonsensical, and we never get much idea of why Barris would want to make it up – except to draw even more attention to himself. We know its lies, he knows its lies (Believe Me If You Can, perhaps.) So – as the gleefully foul-mouthed Barris himself might put it – whats the f**king point?

10th March, 2003
(seen same day, Warner Village, Newcastle)

by Neil Young