If the moviegoing public, by some strange chance, hasn't heard enough about screenwriter Charlie Kaufman lately, they're about to get another chance. The curious imaginative force behind Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, who in the former built a film around his inability to transform a book into a screenplay, proves in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind that adaptation is a piece of cake, turning a memoir into a movie.
It might be telling that Kaufman found this book adaptable; Chuck Barris' quasi-memoir is as odd and second-guessable as Adaptation, with each (surely) inventing a second life for an author whose real one seems lacking.
Here's what we know for sure about Chuck Barris: A few decades ago, he saw the big boulder of Western Civilization (or at least American television) perched precariously on a hillside and gave it a push, starting the downward roll that would bring us to The Bachelor and Fear Factor. Desperate to break into showbiz, he invented game shows like The Dating Game, inventing a genre one could call "car-wreck television" - that is, shows so horrible that people are unable to stop looking at them. His lowest-common-denominator career culminated in The Gong Show, a talent show for the talentless which he hosted himself. He was very successful, as minions of Satan generally are.
Here's what you didn't know: According to Barris' memoir, he had a hidden life during these years. He was recruited in secret to be a hit man for the CIA. All those fantasy trips that Dating Game contestants won were really an elaborate cover for his own assignments; he would do a little chaperoning, then slink away to garrote some enemy of the state.
So as in Kaufman's films, we're left in an awkward position: Clearly, we can't take this seriously, but what exactly do we make of it? Is Barris pulling our leg for our amusement or his? Could this be Barris' straight-faced attempt to lend drama to a terminally shallow life? For his part, Kaufman puts nothing in the screenplay to make that question easier to answer.
Any hints in tone here come from the film's first-time director, actor George Clooney. Clooney lets the spy stuff feel less real than the rest, couching it in trench coat clichés, but on the other hand, some of the film's most heartfelt moments - a scene with fellow assassin Rutger Hauer, for instance - come during the fantasy part of the story. Everyone involved seems a little reluctant to let us in on the joke.
As a director, Clooney tries a little too hard to impress us. Borrowing from buddy Steven Soderbergh's bag of tricks, he manipulates the image in various ways, making it alternately grainy, color-drenched, and contrasty. He enjoys framing shots in unusual ways that are distractingly appealing. His most effective stylistic tic is his fondness for shots in which the camera slides slowly back and forth, elapsing time without an edit.
Clooney is predictably good with actors, drawing an especially charming performance out of Drew Barrymore, who starts the film as a beatnik slut who proudly tells Barris of her ambition to sleep with a man of every ethnic origin. Less effective is Julia Roberts, who plays one of the denizens of Barris' hit-man world. The director can't quite tell us how to appreciate the actress: Is she a serious character, or a Hollywood star on a lark in Barris' cloak-and-dagger fantasy? Clooney's own performance, as a hit-man recruiting agent, can also be read both ways, but is more entertaining to watch.
As the hero, Sam Rockwell has to carry most of the weight of these barely defined shifts in tone; he plays it pretty straight, letting his dual life drive him into a convincingly bleak paranoia. The film slows down as he descends, introducing complications that get harder to buy, but Rockwell has enough antsy appeal to keep us interested.
Viewers may leave the theater knowing as little about Barris' actual life as they did two hours earlier. But it's possible that we're getting a substantial peek into the man's soul - looking at a man who climbed so high by sinking so low, that his idea of salvaging his reputation was to say he killed people (instead of just numbing their brains) for his country. •