Chuck Barris is a fallen idol, a forgotten cog in the glorious, gangrenous pop culture machine that has chugged and mugged its way into American living rooms since the early '40s. No one had their calloused thumb more readily poised on the pulse of a nation in naughty transition better than the notorious 'Chucky Baby'. From the chaperoned sexual hook-ups of The Dating Game through the misery loves matrimony of The Newlywed Game (and countless permutations on said premises), this off-color Oompa Loompa saw deep into the wounded psyche of a people burned by liberation and fear and winked a bloodshot eye. But his crowning achievement (as well as personal downfall) had to be the talent show as social enema known as The Gong Show. Here, for a few moments of fame and a couple hundred bucks, anyone with the vaguest notion of personal performance capability tried to avoid the Asian axe and enter that isolated realm of individual immortality. But now, like the silly fad or faded pop star, Barris is a lost relic, an irregular reminder that the pathway to Jerry Springer and Jackass was just a question about "whoopie" away. So it's not surprising that when he wrote his "unauthorized" autobiography, he called it Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. What is shocking however, is the moving mini-masterpiece that actor turned director George Clooney created from said tome: a celebration and examination of this true titan of trash television.
From the time he was a young man, Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) desired one thing: sex. Women and their feminine wiles fascinated and frustrated him. After a brief stint working for Dick Clark on American Bandstand and even writing a hit pop song (Freddie "Boom Boom" Cannon's "Palisades Park"), he moved to New York City to get a job in television. He began his illustrious career as an NBC page. Soon, he was part of middle management. But just as quickly as he was moving up, he was fired. During this frenetic time in his life, he met two important figures. One was Penny Pacino (Drew Barrymore), a women whom he'd share his heart and his pain with for the rest of the better part of his life. The other was Jim Byrd (Clooney), a shadowy figure with an even more mysterious offer. Claiming Barris "fit the profile," he offered him a job as a CIA hitman, an international assassin. Intrigued (and desperate for money), Barris agreed and was trained in the art of murder.
Thus began a strange bifurcated existence for the wannabe television producer and spy. No sooner had The Dating Game been rejected by ABC than he got the call to kill a man in Mexico. No sooner had he arrived back from South of the Border than ABC reconsidered and the show was picked up. When a prime time version was requested, Byrd gives Barris the idea of giving away trips to exotic locales as the final prize. This way, Barris as "chaperone" can travel to distant lands and "execute" his directives. On a trip to Helsinki, Barris meets Olivia/Patricia (Julia Roberts), an exotic fatal femme who becomes his international contact--and idealized love interest. With the arrival of The Gong Show, Barris (as host) is confronted with superstardom and the scorn that comes with it. There is also a new threat from his undercover work. Seems there's a mole in the agency, a rogue out to get Byrd and his associates. As the pressures from both occupations overwhelm him, Barris has a massive breakdown and holes up in a New York hotel. There, he decides to exorcise his inner demons by writing
There's a stand-up comedy routine (the name of the comic is forgotten now) that links the concepts of laughter and murder together in a strange, yet significant manner. As the premise states, comedians and entertainers take the stage like assassins, hoping to confront the crowd gathered and "knock 'em dead." Using verbal "barbs" and "cutting" wit, he or she hopes to deliver a "knockout" performance that renders their "victims" "helpless." When a performer is indeed successful, he or she is said to have "killed," really "slaying" the audience. If they are bad, they "die" or "bomb. Chuck Barris believed in such a connection between amusement and massacre, maybe too much so. He learned he literally had the power of life and death in his hands, to help a network (and himself) achieve financial success or desperate ruin.
As an autobiography and a biopic, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a so-so effort of interesting, if incomplete factual details. But as a motion picture, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a work of genius. Actually, a better way of saying it would be that Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is the visionary work of several geniuses: the acting of its cast, the direction of George Clooney, the writing of Charles Kaufman, and the life of Chuck Barris. It is a staggering showcase of subtle insight, overt symbolism, and warped imagination. It's a masterwork of narrative mutation, of horrendous flights of fatal fantasy locked inside the brain of a truly troubled soul. Using the basic timeline reference points as a starting point, Clooney and Kaufman have decided to craft a cautionary look at celebrity, a brazen indictment of the new American dream of fame and fortune wrapped around the personal predicaments and reality programming that makes up most of modern television. For the audience and the characters in the film, this is an experiment, a meshing of old Hollywood techniques with pop culture phantoms to haunt our hubris and defy our expectations. Though a movie that factually follows Barris' career might have been more nostalgic and nutty, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind has much more to say about our media addicted culture than to merely mete out a re-creationist ideology.
Pulled together in a complicated vision of human integrity and ethics in freefall, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a movie that doesn't give up its insights readily. It buries them in pop culture references, loving glances back in hand colored nostalgia and precise, problematic vignettes. Multiple viewings unleash, like a putrid Pandora's box, a wealth of weird, clever tidbits: odd character names, ominous locations, hints, and clues. Like the stylized color scheme used in interview sequences of people who really knew Barris, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind paints a contorted portrait of a man who probably did more for daytime television than any other producer in the history of the genre. Whether he killed people in reality or just in the darkest recesses of his fertile, fevered brain, is something only God and Chuck know the actual answer to. But one thing is certain: the film made of his pursuit of notoriety, nookie, and nirvana resonates with a power that is matched only by the lasting impact of Barris' brainchildren on the world of entertainment. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a great film and marked George Clooney's emergence as an artist with a special, strong visual sense.
In order to realize his take on Barris' bizarro world, Clooney relied on several color and exposure tricks to render the amazing muted color palette of the film's first few sequences. He then quickly jumps into a more stylized old Hollywood feel of crisp contrast and shadows. All of this stunning eye candy is captured in full-blown hue hyperbole in the 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen image, the 1080p AVC encode giving everything an unearthly, unreal glow. Details also dominate the image, pushing the boundaries of what the mind can comprehend, visually. With strong contrasts and even better aesthetic approaches, the transfer here is more than terrific - it's transcendent.
As with many Blu-ray releases, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind boasts a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that makes the most of Clooney's cracked imagination. The various sequences share space with the dialogue and the score to set up a kind of environmental envelopment. We feel the immersion, sense the sinister elements in the shadows, and scoff at the various cues to concepts and times past. All together, the sound and picture here are nearly perfect, making the movie they support appear even better.
As director, Clooney gets to go crazy and include a treasure trove of contextual and creative material that helps to flesh out exactly how a film like this got made. There is nothing new on the Blu-ray release - all this material has been ported over from the original DVD release. The Behind the Scenes featurette (which is far too short for how fun it is) gives us the necessary background on the film. "The Real Chuck Barris" incorporates all the interview footage from the film and adds in some actual Barris comments to offer a compelling, if cursory, look at the man behind the story. A series of Sam Rockwell screen tests illustrate in vivid detail the exact qualities that the actor exhibited to get the gig and "The Gong Show" acts highlight the care and craft that went in to recreating Barris' mid-'70s mega-hit for the silver screen. But without a doubt, the best added bonus is the deleted scene section (with optional commentary track) and the actual full-length filmmaker's narrative with Clooney and cinematographer Newton Thomas Spiel. They describe secrets, discuss problems, and tantalize with missed opportunities. Together with the remaining relative extras, this is a fine, completely fleshed out package.
Looking back on it, one gets the distinct impression that The Gong Show's main failing was a lack of irony. Seems that in modern popular culture, people and productions can get away with anything as long as they layer in some self-referencing and ribbing material. They then get to scream "satire" and "sarcasm" and everyone goes home happy. In the case of his own unusual approach to self-reflection, Barris clearly gets the last laugh - and doesn't care if anyone joins in with the merriment. No matter it's place in the various oeuvre's of its cast and crew, Confession of a Dangerous Mind is a delight, and this HD update is a revelation. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, it misses the Collector's Series slot by mere microns. Barris may be a complicated killing machine, or just a sadly deluded fool. Whatever the case, the core of his amazing, aggravating personality is on display here for all to question and contemplate. While gone from our TV screens, Chuck Barris will never be fully forgotten. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind explains why.