It’s been quite the year for Charlie Kaufman, who once again proved his screenwriting prowess by turning writer’s block into the year’s most noteworthy script in Adaptation. One would’ve hoped he could add some quirks to his adaptation of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, TV host/producer Chuck Barris’s “unauthorized autobiography”. Alas, no dice.
You’ve undoubtedly heard about the book: Barris, producer of “The Dating Game,” “Newlywed Game” and host-producer of “The Gong Show,” claims he moonlighted as a CIA agent during his TV heyday. While it makes for an entertaining read, the book is structured like a cheesy spy novel, mutating elements of Ken Follett and Elmore Leonard into a campy pulp classic. The book’s true highlights are Barris’s self-deprecating remarks – many credit him to this day as the harbinger of “trash TV” – and his humorous anecdotes from these game show sets.
Kaufman opts instead to treat the subject matter quite seriously, downplaying the zany game show set antics in favor of the spy story. A few promising anecdotes are thrown in from “The Dating Game,” where Barris eventually had to hire an actor disguised as a network censor to intimidate contestants into behaving on-screen. Then all but one funny excerpt is added from “The Newlywed Game.” By the time the story rolls on to “The Gong Show, arguably Barris’s pièce de résistance, the spy element has taken over.
George Clooney’s Soderberghian direction adds to the serious tone. The array of noirish mise-en-scènes he creates doesn’t offer much opportunity for comic relief. Sam Rockwell adds a few quirks in his performance as Barris and Drew Barrymore is her usual dippy self as his long-suffering girlfriend Penny, but the supporting cast primarily plays it straight. Clooney, who plays Barris’s boss Jim Byrd, and Julia Roberts, who plays fellow CIA agent Patricia Watson, seem to be stuck in Ocean’s Eleven”mode with their poker faces.
It’s a shame that Kaufman and Clooney could bungle up this outsider story. The ingredients were there for “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” to become a cult classic, but the resulting film is a tedious Hollywood yawner.