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Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

"Who could have known there were so many Americans just waiting for the opportunity to get on TV and make an ass of themselves?" Had this been said by a media critic in the past year or two, it would come as little surprise — American television currently is awash in low-budget "reality" TV programs, be they competitions centered around dating and marriage or simple talent shows where budding stars of tomorrow compete for recording contracts, and — more importantly — a moment of fame. And yet, while this recent trend in network programming has begun to supplant a steady stream of sitcoms and hour-long dramas, it's far from new. For reality television, we have none other to thank than Chuck Barris, a man who rose from obscurity as an NBC page in New York to become a middle-management suit and then a producer in his own right. Barris himself had no grand ambitions, other than ambition itself — in fact, he wrote a hit pop-song ("Palisades Park") in the '60s just for the kick of hearing it on the radio. Television, however, held a much greater appeal to his less-than-lofty sensibilities — at a time when programming executives were trying to work within perceived limits of good taste, Barris had an eye for what people simply wanted to see. Hence, he created "The Dating Game," with its incessant sexual double entendres, and soon followed it with "The Newlywed Game." And then, fully aware that real talent was much harder to find than the average neighborhood goofball, he invented and hosted "The Gong Show," which invited viewers to heap scorn upon guileless schlubs while occasionally appreciating a good act now and then, and of course "The Unknown Comic" and "Gene Gene, the Dancing Machine." Barris may not have been a genius, but he certainly understood why people watched television, and what would make them keep watching.

However, considering his claim to fame as the father of "reality" TV, Barris's life itself bordered at times on psychosis. Coming out of a difficult childhood, he often was a hard guy to pin down, and he lusted after women while he distrusted them at the same time. After his television programs were canceled in the 1980s, Barris cashed out and holed up in New York for several months, where he wrote his "unauthorized" autobiography, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. George Clooney's 2002 film (his directorial debut) concerns Barris's life story, but with an unsubstantiated twist the game-show host put into his own bio — he served as a contract killer for the CIA for several years and killed more than 30 people. In fact, the decision to send "Dating Game" winners on overseas vacations with a chaperone was suggested by Barris's CIA handler (played by Clooney) as the perfect cover to ferry a respected TV producer into foreign countries, where his seemingly benign vacation was merely a veil for some unceremonious, unsympathetic wet-work. Along the way, Barris (Sam Rockwell) meets a female operative, "Patricia" (Julia Roberts), who may or may not have his best interests at heart. But when a mole wipes out every one of his associates, Barris quits the assassin business for good, choosing to go on the record while coping with manic depression in a New York hotel room.

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Is Barris's story real? On the one hand, probably not. Conspiracy theories aside, it's difficult to believe that the CIA would entrust assassination work to a non-professional killer, and particularly one with a chaotic personal life. Then again, who's to say what ideas "The Company" would support from time to time — and what's more, Barris's account has never been flat-out disproven. It's this particular gray area that makes Confessions of a Dangerous Mind such an enjoyable movie, particularly in the hands of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. The pen responsible for Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002) has made a cottage industry out of looming madness, and his script sparkles with playful moments that elevate what would seem far too heavy in a more straightforward context. Clooney and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel give the film an additionally ethereal quality by presenting Barris's alleged exploits, but never endorsing them — while his television career plays like a standard up-by-your-bootstraps biopic, each assassination sequence is a naked homage to a movie genre, be it the spaghetti western, film noir, or '60s spy yarn. By playing over the top, we are allowed to disbelieve Barris's exploits while enjoying them just the same (two of his fellow CIA trainees are "Oswald" and "Ruby"). And yet, even in the "real" world of New York and L.A., Clooney's fluid camera invites another level of incredulity — characters move about freely within economical compressions of time and space, lending a dreamlike atmosphere to Barris's life. Anchoring the entire project is Sam Rockwell — the actor has delivered solid supporting work in a number of films, and while he's billed underneath Clooney, Roberts, and Drew Barrymore in this project, it's clear that he has the youth and potential to become one of America's foremost film talents, effortlessly shifting his moods from one scene to the next with an eccentric blend of buffoonery and pathos. It's a performance that's bound to win more attention in the years ahead.

Miramax's DVD release of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind features a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Features include a commentary by director Clooney and cinematographer Sigel — they worked together previously on Three Kings (1999), and they deliver a relaxed, chatty track that concentrates on various film-stock processes, as well as the fact that all of the film's "trick" photography was achieved practically and entirely in-camera — no CGI or process shots were used. Also included are seven behind-the-scenes featurettes, 11 deleted scenes (with commentary), three Sam Rockwell screen tests, five "Gong Show" acts not used in the film, a stills gallery, and the featurette "The Real Chuck Barris," which offers a few brief "Gong Show" clips and recollections from Barris (now in his 70s) and those who knew him at the time. Just getting a glimpse of Barris back then on TV, with his silly, hand-clapping patter and crazy hats, reminds one of how simple, artless, and sweet his shows were compared to today's miserable, and occasionally vile, reality programs. Keep-case.

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