High On Unchecked Ambition; George Clooney’s Directorial Debut “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”
by Scott Foundas
“All the information I have about myself is from forged documents”
–Vladimir Nabokov, quoted by Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) in a scene from
“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.”
George Clooney’s “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” might be the greatest film ever directed by a reigning sex symbol; and that’s no slight. Rather, it’s a way of pointing out that while other actor-directors — at least those who truly merit the hyphenate, Robert Redford and Warren Beatty are the clearest models here — have turned their attentions behind the camera only once their demand as (and resemblance to) matinee idols has begun to fade, Clooney has made his great leap forward at precisely the moment we (or he) might least have expected it. But then, Clooney has always been full of surprises: since first appearing, post-“ER,” in Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight,” he’s shown an uncommon aptitude for unconventional leading-man roles, a willingness — a ferocious drive, even — to buck the saddle of his good looks and swooning female fans by playing the stoic, hellbent captain in “The Perfect Storm” and the emotionally disturbed psychotherapist in “Solaris” (his two finest performances to date). And in-between, he’s been effortlessly breezy and buoyant in projects (“Ocean’s Eleven,” anyone?) that might have been lesser propositions without his participation.
So Clooney is one of our best actors, fully deserving of those Cary Grant comparisons that frequently come his way; though Clooney may already have shown more dramatic range than Grant ever did. If it seems like I’m dwelling here, it’s only to further remark upon how few great actors have made their way as great directors. Yet, I have now seen “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” twice and I think that it is quite often a great film and, even when not, never short of a brilliant debut. It’s a roaring, pulsating creation with so much life and imagination in it, so much raucous entertainment, that it leaves most other movies looking fairly dullish. (Particularly in this season, when it can be regarded as the anti-“Antwone Fisher.”) It is a movie dressed up in a camouflage shirt and pink polka-dotted pants in the middle of a surprise summer snowstorm.
But before I get carried away, a few ground rules: “Confessions” was once a book — an alleged autobiography by Chuck Barris, in which the “Dating Game” creator and “Gong Show” host professed to spending some 20-plus years, in tandem with his responsibilities as television host and producer, as a covert assassin trained and employed by the CIA. That book then became a screenplay by the estimable Charlie Kaufman, some time before “Being John Malkovich” was a reality. And that screenplay lingered in the tiers of Hollywood’s development hell for years, with various stars and A-list directors attached, gathering a reputation as one of the town’s best unmade projects, until Clooney (with a little help from his friends, namely Soderbergh) got the greenlight to make the thing with an actor, Sam Rockwell, who would hardly just play Barris, but would inhale every dust particle of Barris’ being to give one of the most astonishing, electrifying performances in any movie this year. Do you see how sometimes these things are fated?
Now, it’s not terribly surprising that Hollywood should have lusted after Barris’ off-kilter memoir, much in the way it had once lusted after Barris himself who, in 1968 (and for a few years afterwards) produced as many as 27 original half-hours of network television programming per week. The notion that Barris might have been spending that same time carrying out assignments as a globetrotting hitman is understandably irresistible, just the sort of pop-fantasy stuff so many of our celluloid dreams are made of. And many potential adapters of Barris’ story might have been content to stop there, with a mildly exotic cloak-and-dagger shadowplay, tongue planted firmly in cheek. For surely, most who have read Barris have dismissed his more outlandish claims, comfortable in their certainty that things simply do not happen as Barris would have them.
But it’s the sinister thrill of having things his way — of having his assassin’s gun and game-show-host’s microphone too — that gives Barris’ story its kick. Read between the lines of “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” and therein lies the raging oration of an ugly Jewish kid from Philadelphia who wanted to grow up to be Albert Einstein or Joe DiMaggio; to break free from the commonplace shackles of his anonymous suburban existence; to be a renaissance man in a non-renaissance era; to prove to himself (more than to anyone else) that his was a unique existence worth inhabiting. Which is, of course, the assurance we all seek, whether or not we admit it. (You could also say that Barris’ raison d’etre boils down to a desire to get laid as frequently as possible by as many beautiful women as possible, but I digress.) This identity crisis, this complex entanglement of narcissism and self-loathing, is the propulsive force of “Confessions” and it’s something that Kaufman — that dark, paranoid prince of American screenwriting — gets even better than Barris himself. Rarely have a screenwriter and a piece of material been so ideally mated.
Kaufman has a lilting, Rivette-like sense of reality’s pliability, of the way that all the world is a stage. And so “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” quickly dismisses any potential discussion of what did or didn’t “really” happen to Barris, not just because of the inherent folly by which any movie purports to present us with “reality,” but because “Confessions” is above all else a wearisome celebration of all our private fantasy lives made manifest, of the excitement and adventure we secretly wish would befall us and of the paralyzing fear and misery that might ensue if they did. Barris’ mindscape — as much as anything, the setting for this tale — is a place where the concrete and intangible don’t merely collide; they are as one. And this is the terrain that the intrepid explorer Kaufman knows best: there are few (if any other) screenwriters today who feel as comfortable kicking off their shoes and walking around inside someone else’s head for a while.
It’s Kaufman who has germinated Barris’ seed into such intriguing possibilities, realizing that the matter of is he or isn’t he (a CIA agent) is the least interesting distortion in “Confession”‘s house of mirrors. And Kaufman’s script is the billowing, sail-shaped house built from Barris’ blueprint; a tunneling so deep into the recesses of Barris’ id that the result brims with a rush of pre-cognition — a movie that knows where it’s going before we do, before Barris himself might, yet always lands heads-up. Expanding and reconfiguring the source material in a series of gloriously florid ways, “Confessions” becomes part loopy bio-pic and part eastern-European fever dream, about all the things in the world that might drive someone mad, fully open to the suggestion that killing a man (or just fantasizing about it) might be both sickening and very exciting. In a career marked by bold invention, coupled with a miraculous knack for getting his vanguard projects made, “Confessions” is Kaufman’s finest canvas to date; a stunning, cohesive work after many dazzling sketches and a finer, more richly imaginative adaptation than “Adaptation” itself.
Now back to Clooney, who directs this movie as though it were both his first and his last; who takes more daring risks that pay off in this one film than some directors do in an entire career; who gives us a CIA training sequence worthy of “Dr. Strangelove” and a Mexico set-piece right out of Peckinpah; who imagines a rollicking series of spy games with all the Hitchcockian flair missing from “The Truth About Charlie”; who comes out looking like the most popular jock in school and the whizziest whiz kid rolled into one, fully aware of how smart he is and not giving a fuck what anyone else thinks of him. “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” is one of the freest, darkest and most eccentric pictures around, one likely to polarize audiences and be ignored by Oscar. (How did this ever get made by Miramax?) And Clooney takes that liberty and runs with it, giving birth to the film’s most glorious permutations; he’s high on Barris’ own unchecked ambition.
Perhaps not since Danny DeVito’s “Hoffa” has an American film shown such a seductive, Wellesian affinity for the physical materials of moviemaking — for interconnected sets, breakaway walls and in-camera, trompe-l’oeil photography — and used those materials to construct an elaborate representation of its protagonist’s innermost emotional states. Even that may still not prepare you for how far Clooney has gone — with the contribution of his gifted cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel — to make every shot in the film not just as sensually enveloping as possible, but keyed-in to the appropriate level of thrill or despair on Barris’ bipolar rollercoaster: grainy black-and-white for a distant childhood flashback; a hand-painted, comic-book look for the early scenes depicting Barris’ comeuppance as an aspiring television exec; the Technicolor bounce of the bloodlusty Mexico scenes; and the wintry despair, complete with snow falling indoors, of Barris’ rock bottom.
And it is Clooney who fought to cast Rockwell as Barris, something which we viewers should be as grateful for as Rockwell himself. To say that this is a star-making performance; that it is impossible to think of any other actor playing this part; that Rockwell is the combustible, convulsive nucleus keeping the film’s disparate electron clouds in proper orbit all seems somehow inadequate. Rather, the performance must simply be experienced, for Rockwell has so given himself over to this part, physically and spiritually, that it defies the grammar of ordinary film acting and gives off a huge, indescribable thrill, like seeing the young Lou Castel in “Fists in the Pocket” or James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.”
I realize I’ve said almost nothing about what actually happens in “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” about the “plot” of the film, per se. I’ve neglected to mention that Julia Roberts is here, wonderfully enigmatic as a whip-smart fellow “agent” who gleefully straddles the line between friend and foe; that Drew Barrymore pops up as the ageless object of Barris’ alternate affection and disgust; or that Clooney has given himself a plum role as Barris’ CIA mentor, who could be the long lost brother of Harry Lime. In truth, some of these characters and the events surrounding them get a bit lost in “Confessions'” frantic shuffle. (If Clooney has fallen victim to one familiar trap of the first-time filmmaker, it’s that he has bitten off slightly more than he can comfortably chew.) But moreover, it seems fitting to play fast and loose with the details of a movie in which nothing is to be taken for granted.