A Sartrean “impossible history,” the Charlie Kaufman-scripted Confessions of a Dangerous Mind hits the meta-movie paradigm running. The avowed biopic of 1970s game-show impresario Chuck Barris—based on his own “unauthorized autobiography”—Confessions is no less luridly earnest about its saga and protagonist than Frida and Ali. Directed by first-timer George Clooney with tongue embedded in cheek, the film’s initial farcicality could easily be taken as irreverent expressionism, capturing the happy buzz of Barris’s ascension to fame and fortune. But then the worm turns: The book’s trump card, and raison d’être, is Barris’s contention that for years he supplemented his profile as network producer and host of The Gong Show with work as a freelance CIA assassin. He goes so far as to maintain that European vacation prizes awarded on The Dating Game were chosen for their synchronicity with his black-book assignments.
“The perfect cover” is how his Company contact (a drier-than-dry Clooney) puts it, and the film luxuriates in Cold War chestnuts, down to Barris’s trenchcoat and mysterious vamp-operative Patricia (Julia Roberts). It’s a plum ruse played straight, but for anyone who remembers Barris (an irreverent schmuck-jester to whom the very idea of hosting a TV show seemed deathlessly hilarious) and The Gong Show (itself a shapeless, self-destructing piece of anti-television), the espionage-moonlighting revelation is the final public prank, amending our media experience as breezily as that exhilarating 1990 climax of Newhart, in which Bob awakes from the show’s eight-season dream beside his previous TV wife, Suzanne Pleshette.
As Barris, Sam Rockwell captures the man without mimicking, but like most of the cast, he’s restrained from enjoying anything like a comic outburst. It’s difficult to say whether Kaufman forbids such a comforting cue to pass through his hard drive, or whether Clooney simply doesn’t know how to direct comedy. The frank talking heads—Dick Clark, Jaye P. Morgan, Gene Gene the Dancing Machine—fog up the lens even further. Barris’s showbiz career has an inherent loopiness (voyeuristic gambits like The Newlywed Game have lost none of their creepy charm), and the best visual hoot is a Dating Game smash-up in which a girl picks a sweet-talking schlub over Brad Pitt and Matt Damon. But the covert adventures, narrated in the book’s snappy, heart-to-heart manner, are often old-spy-thriller dull—until you remind yourself that it’s supposed to be Chuck Barris, of all people, fedora’d and black-gloved, stalking through the Helsinki alleyways hunting down Communist quarry. It’s a comedy in which you must tell yourself the jokes.
According to Barris, his TV career peaks just as he becomes convinced that elements in his CIA cell are stalking him; the justified paranoia and psychological meltdown ended both careers. Of course, in actuality The Gong Show had had its run; Barris semi-retired and wrote a preposterous “memoir.” (Compare him to Auto Focus‘s Bob Crane, whose off-the-set travails inspired a parallel descent, but whose outrageous story was, as far as we know, true.) Acceleratingly gloomy and yet culminating in a counter-poisoning spy-vs.-spy face-off with Roberts’s leggy femme, Confessions keeps its cards close, and Kaufman is perfectly capable of starving his screenplay to save it, and perfectly happy with being misunderstood. (Recall how many critics thought Adaptation “fell apart” and “sold out” in the last half-hour.) The movie is, finally, an enigma, not because of Barris’s monstrous fibbing, but because it resists being experienced as satire for the sake of its own satirical integrity.
Fresh from Kaufmanville himself, Nicolas Cage has also directed his first film, Sonny, a slight, balmy indie centering on the eponymous 26-year-old lad (James Franco) as he returns from an army stint to his home in New Orleans—a gone-to-seed brothel in which the only staff left are his mega-mom (Brenda Blethyn, in full foghorn mode) and a new chippie, Carol (Mena Suvari), commonly pimped out to wealthy Louisiana homes. From when he was a boy, Sonny was “trained” by his mother to be a love machine; now he longs to go straight, a proposition neither Mom nor the outside world is too fond of. What little drama there is focuses on Sonny’s lifestyle crisis and his budding romance with Carol; it’s a wallow in we-gotta-get-out-of-this-place self-disgust that also manages to be prudish. (Suvari’s must be the only nudity-shy whore in New Orleans, a hang-up the massive and warmly aged Brenda Vaccaro, as a blowsy client of Sonny’s, doesn’t share.) Amid the cliché and foreshadowing, Cage manages a degree of casual realism—especially in the scenes between Franco and withered stepdad Harry Dean Stanton—that is routinely dynamited by Blethyn, vomiting out her lumpy dialogue in a mutant drawl as if it were so much tequila-agitated-ulcer blood. By the time Cage shows up as a gay, lemon-suited pimp with a pink-dyed poodle, Sonny has found a familiar level of irrelevance.