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December 31, 2002 E-mail story   Print   Most E-Mailed


'Confessions of a Dangerous Mind'

*George Clooney's first effort behind the camera was doubtless more stimulating to direct than it will be for audiences to watch.
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By Kenneth Turan, Times Staff Writer

Those who think there is no justice in American popular culture take note: "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," the autobiography of a man who created some of the most irritating programs in television history, has, two decades after publication, been made into a most irritating film. The mills of the Lord grind slowly, but they grind exceeding fine.

The man in question is Chuck Barris, the inquiring mind behind "The Dating Game," "The Newlywed Game" and "The Gong Show," programs that reinforced the venerable axiom that nobody ever lost money underestimating the taste of the American public.

Perhaps because he likes a good story, perhaps because he enjoys tweaking the establishment, perhaps because unleashing all that terrible television wasn't enough for him, perhaps (though not very likely) because it was actually true, Barris insisted in his book that he had yet another career: He was a decorated hit man for the CIA, with numerous assassinations to his credit.

This is a fairly outrageous claim, yet it is the peculiar accomplishment of "Mind," written by Charlie Kaufman and directed in his debut by George Clooney, to have made a film so tedious that it is impossible to care whether that boast is true or not. Barris' triumphs and his crises mean the same to us: zero.

This is not because he's not a significant figure. As the avatar of lowest-common-denominator television, someone who cashed in big on people's willingness to humiliate themselves after he realized that "almost any American would sell out their spouse for a refrigerator/freezer or a lawnmower they could ride around in," Barris is the visionary, if that's the right word, who made reality TV possible.

But as interpreted, presumably accurately, by Sam Rockwell, Barris is such a self-involved jerk that nothing else matters. In its avidity for recounting this kind of a life, in its belief that the more annoying a character is, the more significant he becomes, "Dangerous Mind" follows in the footsteps of the late, unlamented Andy Kaufman biopic, "Man on the Moon." As if Barris' on-screen persona weren't off-putting enough, "Dangerous Mind" makes things worse with the way it chooses to tell his story. Starting with the man himself standing nude in front of a TV as he works his way through a 1981 nervous breakdown and flashing back over his overlapping television and CIA careers, the film is much more smug and pleased with itself than it has any reason to be.

Part of the problem is likely the screenplay, which makes you wonder if, with a nod to "Adaptation," there are two Charlie Kaufmans, one who writes brilliant scripts like "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation," and one who writes unwatchable ones like "Human Nature" and "Dangerous Mind." Or perhaps, like the stunts in "Jackass," directing a Kaufman script is not something that should be tried at home.

Certainly Clooney, who inexplicably cast himself as Barris' robotic CIA handler, has things to answer for in the directing department. Though he is adept at working with some actors (Drew Barrymore does well with the role of Barris' super-patient girlfriend, Penny), he is too indulgent with others, particularly Julia Roberts as a rival assassin, encouraging a nudge-nudge, wink-wink style that stumbles all over itself in its zeal to be arch and hip.

Just as troublesome is Clooney's passion, not uncommon in enthusiastic first-timers, for throwing everything but the kitchen sink onto the screen. With its multiplicity of over-stylized looks and slick gimmicks, "Dangerous Mind" was doubtless more stimulating to direct than it will be for audiences to experience.

Clooney himself shrewdly anticipated that criticism when he predicted in an interview, "The knock on me will be that it's over-directed," which is more self-insight than you usually get from a filmmaker. If the directing thing doesn't work out, a second career as a film critic is a possibility. Or if excitement is an issue, perhaps Barris' old CIA slot is still open. You never know if you don't ask.

'Confessions of a Dangerous Mind'

MPAA rating: R, for language, sexual content and violence.

Times guidelines: More distasteful than explicit.

Drew Barrymore ... Penny
George Clooney ... Jim Byrd
Julia Roberts ... Patricia
Sam Rockwell ... Chuck Barris

A Mad Chance production in association with Section Eight, released by Miramax Films. Director George Clooney. Producer Andrew Lazar. Executive producers Steven Soderbergh, Rand Ravich, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Jon Gordon, Stephen Evans. Screenplay Charlie Kaufman, based on the book by Chuck Barris. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel. Editor Stephen Mirrione. Costume designer Renée April. Music Alex Wurman. Production design James D. Bissell. Supervising art director Isabelle Guay. Key set decorator Anne Galea. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

Exclusively at the AMC Century 14, Century City Shopping Center, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 289-4262.


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