I seem to recall, back in the late ’70s, Steve Martin guest hosting Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show” with Richard Pryor as his headlining star. Both comics were at the top of their stand-up games. Along with millions of other viewers, I tuned in anticipating an event, a comic convergence. There was a moment of anxiety as Martin tapped his pencil on Johnny’s desk; Pryor took the hot seat; and the hype bubbled into the studio audience’s anticipatory giggles. But under the weight of TVland’s impossible expectations, the host and guest’s comic wits seemed to strain and fail; the interview fell flat and the relief of a commercial break couldn’t come too soon.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind isn’t the disastrous non-event of Martin and Pryor’s “Tonight Show” bust. But I expected more from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s adaptation of Chuck Barris’ “unauthorized autobiography,” Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.
Kaufman has currently struck the subtly satirical vein of irony that the Coen brothers have successfully mined for years. For Adaptation, he smelted down the literary ore of Susan Orlean’s practically unfilmable novel, The Orchid Thief, to just an element in an ironic satire of Hollywood’s best-selling-book adaptation process. In it, the manic fires of his creative and now notorious persona of self-loathing manufactured a cinematic alloy that glowed with Hollywood heat.
So I anticipated that Kaufman would take to adapting the infamous game-show impresario’s book like an odd duck to water. Kaufman’s become something of an auteur, a term coined for directors who leave their mark on their pictures. (Fellow ironists and satirists like the Coens and director Stanley Kubrick come to mind.) Barris’ memoir is replete with Kaufman’s signature characters, settings and themes: There’s Barris (Sam Rockwell, Heist), an anti-hero who compulsively nails himself to the cross of self-loathing, as well as ambiguous villains, ironic femmes fatale and a redemptive wifely type all plodding through a freak-show world that mocks most of our cherished American institutions. Very Kaufman-esque.
But Barris’ Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is something of a postmodern burlesque of 20th century literature. Barris spins his fantastic yarn as unreliably as one of Paul Auster’s narrators; he comically channels the Jewish male neuroses of Philip Roth’s shiksahound, Alexander Portnoy, and stumbles into redemption like a zany, overage version of J.D. Salinger’s notorious Holden Caulfield. There’s also enough duplicity and accompanying paranoia to recall Philip K. Dick sans the sci-fi trappings. Literary? Yes. Cinematic? No.
Kaufman took a left turn with Adaptation and ran into a pot of gold at the end of a Hollywood road less traveled. With Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, for some reason, he attempts something more conventional and less Kaufman-esque: He just adapts the damn thing. Excepting director George Clooney’s few effectively expressionistic scenes, Barris’ fantastic Confessions isn’t told first-person and tongue-in-cheek, but as a theatrical biopic. Kaufman boils down Barris’ rogues’ gallery of all-American gold diggers to the girl who would be Barris’ wife, Penny (Drew Barrymore), and a CIA femme fatale, Patricia (Julia Roberts). The result? Barris’ Hollywood rise-and-fall plot is saved from cliché by his CIA assassin adventures and from tragedy by the love story with Penny. It’s mildly interesting, but not as interesting as it could be.
The true saviors of this picture, though, are the director and actors. Clooney’s directorial debut here is auspicious. He handles the camera with a style typical of his leading-man persona: smooth, suave and self-assured, but with a comic wink. As Barris CIA recruiter and handler, Jim Byrd, he cools his usually romantic gaze to a steely-eyed menace. Barrymore is perfectly cast as a flake with a heart of gold. And though Rockwell is generally too tall and handsome to play the manic hobbit Barris, he does look simian enough in profile and manages the required eye-darting and perspiring anxiety to pull off the role.
Perhaps I just overhyped this picture to myself, hoping for a cinematic event like Adaptation. Perhaps I shouldn’t have read Confessions of a Dangerous Mind before I saw the movie. Kaufman’s next film, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, is due out later this year. Hopefully, he’ll be back on top of his game for that one, because a mind as usually dangerous to Hollywood clichés as his is a terrible thing to waste on a film like this.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.