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The lies of the Godfather of reality 

There are more than a handful of high-profile films in theaters right now, and they're all vying for both Oscar attention and your hard-earned money. Two of them happen to be the directorial debut of even higher-profile, larger-than-life movie stars, and, coincidentally, both focus on real people and actual events. But that's where the similarities end.

            Fortunately, George Clooney had the balls to make a dark, interesting debut behind the camera. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind seems even darker and more interesting when you hold it up next to the saccharine crap of Denzel Washington's boring-but-uplifting Antwone Fisher.

            "Dark" and "interesting." Are there any words more fitting to describe a film, penned by ridiculously hot screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation), that features every member of the 21st Century Rat Pack, yet finds Brad, Matt, Julia, and George all playing support to the relatively unknown Sam Rockwell?

            Rockwell portrays television game show instigator Chuck Barris, the author of the "unauthorized" biography on which Confessions is based. Most people remember Barris as the host of that train wreck called The Gong Show, but he also created a bunch of other popular programming, most notably The Newlywed Game and The Dating Game. Benchmark moments of western civilization these events were not, but one can hardly deny Barris's importance in the grand scheme of things, especially when you consider the Nielsen ratings The Bachelorette and Joe Millionaire have been posting lately.

            In the film, as in real life, Barris wonders, "Who could imagine that there were so many Americans willing to make an ass out of themselves just to get on TV?," making him both the grandson of P.T. Barnum and the grandfather of today's reality television craze.

            Interestingly enough, Confessions doesn't devote any more than half of its running time to the shocking rise and disgusting fall of Barris. Sure, we see the typical scenes of him struggling to break into the business before hitting it big. We watch him falling in love with the slightly off-kilter Penny (Drew Barrymore; Rockwell's Charlie's Angels co-star), along with flashbacks of Barris's perverted youth (Strawberry Dick is my new favorite nickname for people who bug me). We also get more of the VH-1-style crash-and-burn than we're used to seeing in the typical Hollywood biopic, but it's still only part of the story.

            The other portion involves Barris being secretly recruited and trained as a hitman by the CIA (Clooney plays his mysterious contact). Yeah, it turns out when Barris accompanied winners of The Dating Game to various "exotic" locales, like West Berlin and Helsinki, he was really there as a covert government operative with orders to execute certain dangerous individuals who posed a threat to this great land of ours.

            Now, I know what you're thinking: This must be one of Kaufman's weird little mind trips, because there's no way Barris led that kind of exciting double life while running several successful game shows. It's just something the screenwriter cooked up to make the picture more entertaining, right? After all, Kaufman clearly has a thing for inventing characters with split-personality problems.

            He does, but the CIA stuff (which, admittedly, is the weakest aspect of Confessions) was all taken directly from Barris's biography. If you believe his murderous claims, Confessions probably becomes a more intriguing film. If you don't, it makes Barris an even more tragic figure, a la a different television star from the '70s whose life was recently immortalized on the silver screen: Bob Crane in Auto Focus, another unruly flick that wasn't afraid to cast an unfavorable light upon its lead. In this case, instead of videotaping orgies, Barris executed international bad guys.

            Rockwell is stunning in his first lead performance, and in any other year, this would be a showy enough turn to be a lock for an Oscar nomination. It's fascinating to watch him become consumed by the role (in a Jim Carrey/Man on the Moon kind of way). It reminded me a lot of Russell Crowe's work in A Beautiful Mind, in that Barris deals with people we're not sure are actually there.

            Direction-wise, it's obvious Clooney took notes while working with Steven Soderbergh (their Section Eight company produced Confessions) and the Coen brothers. But for me, his first effort harkens back to the debut of another actor-turned-director: Saul Rubinek's long-forgotten Jerry & Tom, which also happened to star Rockwell. Clooney's only major misstep is the interviews with actual participants from The Gong Show, like Gene the Dancing Machine, The Unknown Comic, and Jaye P. Morgan.

Bikes, asphalt, rednecks, Dixie beer, filthy wife-beaters, leather, and a girl in capri pants so tight you can see the outline of her organ: Seven memorable things I was able to cull from The Loveless. This 1982 film marked the directorial debut of Kathryn Bigelow, who went on to direct both Schindler (K-19: The Widowmaker) and his evil Nazi counterpart, played by Ralph Fiennes (Strange Days). It was also the first major screen appearance of two-time Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe, who went on to be interviewed by City Newspaper (see page 11).

            The Loveless (which will be presented by Dafoe at the Dryden Theatre on Saturday, January 25) plays like a slightly hallucinatory homage to The Wild Ones, with Dafoe's lone biker Vance hooking up with a motley crew of leather-clad weirdoes --- including rockabilly legend Robert Gordon, whose song inspired this film's title (he's also responsible for the majority of the scorching soundtrack). They decide to head down to Florida to catch some hot racing action, but end up getting caught in that sticky trap known as rural Georgia. When Vance puts the moves on the ridiculously young-looking Telena (played by the ridiculously young-looking Marin Kanter), the locals mistake the bikers for a pack of wild Commies. Hell, as one would imagine, breaks loose.

            It's a blast to witness the genesis of two careers that have gone on to bigger and (mostly) better things. Bigelow, whose second film (Near Dark) played at last year's High Falls Film Festival along with her most recent (The Weight of Water), displays early forms of many of the techniques she's using on a much larger scale these days. The highlight here is the overall sense of ominous danger she's able to create. And Dafoe is, as always, an unnerving treat to watch.

Interested in unsanitized movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy, at www.sick-boy.com, or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.

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