Thursday, February 3, 2011

Movie Review: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

Not long ago I asked a friend of mine to pore over a printout of my entire, roughly 2000-title movie collection, in search of omissions that risked leaving the collection incomplete. And you know, I could’ve said that the very definition of a friend is someone who would agree to do such a thing—but really the very definition of a friend is someone who would even pretend, to agree to do such a thing. This friend returned to me in less than two weeks with a list of perhaps a hundred missing titles, the top-left corner of which was reserved for Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. “It’s the only film I’ve ever watched,” he explained, that the moment it was finished I pressed PLAY and watched it all over again without a break.” And now so it is for me, too.

Sam Rockwell is Chuck Barris—yes, that Chuck Barris—the sixties-era game show producer and eventual host who claims with evident sincerity in his “unauthorized autobiography” that he was also a contract killer for the CIA. His early TV-producing aspirations unfulfilled, Barris is approached by the dark and mysterious Jim Byrd, played by Clooney, who persuades him that the very implausibility of a game-show host doing CIA wet-work is what makes Barris so perfect—the quintessential “guy-we’d-least-suspect.”

Chuck reluctantly agrees, ultimately teaming-up with equally eccentric colleagues Patricia, played by Julia Roberts, and Keillor, played by Rutger Hauer—the former of whom quotes Chaucer as foreplay and only beds her colleagues if they’ve first hidden the microfilm in the… um… appropriate recess, and the latter of whom solicits his fellow assassins to photograph him at the moment of dispatch, and whose default dinner-order is a green salad with no dressing.

Rockwell plays the supposedly gun-totin’ game-show host at his word, artfully gracing his fatalistic acceptance with a semi-permanently affixed disbelief that makes the entire movie, since only by not quite accepting that this is all happening to him, can his character sell us that perhaps it really it is. Meanwhile the life for which Barris is known takes off equally unexpectedly—with the Dating Game and other voyeuristic schmaltz-vehicles proving smash TV-hits.

Everything in Chuck’s young-to-middle life seems to be clicking, save for his ostensibly cavalier but practically troubled partnership with Drew Barrymore’s Penny, the unsinkably affectionate hippy chick whose intermittent companionship ties Barris down in the very ways they’d agreed to avoid, not least for her ignorance of precisely how Chuck is paying the bills. When a mole inside the assassin corps threatens everyone’s survival, Barris must shelve his multilayered emotional conflicts, along with his life-taught instinct to selfishness, just to have the fighting chance everyone is counting on, for him to save the day.

Of all the astonishing aspects of this film, and there are far too many to chronicle here, perhaps the most arresting is the fact that each of the movie’s complex scene-segues is accomplished entirely in-camera, with no CG, blue-screening, or other form of visual effect. Barris abandons his spot at the back of an NBC tour and shows up from the opposite wing dressed as a page and giving a tour of his own, and the whole thing is nothing more than a manic quick-change and a race behind the set. Barris draws from Penny’s banal kitchen-chatter his inspiration to pitch The Dating Game, and the blink-of-an-eye scene switch is handled by placing Rockwell on a turntable. Of all the brilliant craftsmanship that Clooney brings to the direction of this amazing picture, it is the scene-shift-in-camera idea that proves the most inspired, delivered so inconspicuously and in so many different guises throughout the film, that it’s unlikely most of the audience even notices.

Of course gee-whiz camera trickery is no substitute for a compelling overall narrative, and Clooney’s interpretation—and Rockwell’s performance—of Charlie Kauffman’s typically elaborate screenplay are both perfectly-paced and as consummately professional as any of the grand old hands of filmmaking. And all from an actor playing his first-ever lead, and a director making his first film. The bastards!

The Key Grip gives Confessions of a Dangerous mind five bald heads, his highest rating, and places it in position number ten on the list of his hundred favorite movies of all time.

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