Charlie Kaufman’s feature screenplays have only been adapted by four directors. There’s Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.), there’s Michel Gondry (Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), there’s Kaufman himself (Synecdoche, New York and the upcoming Anomalisa). The fourth is none other than George Clooney, who chose the Chuck Barris biopic Confessions of a Dangerous Mind as his directorial debut.
Confessions was a battle of personalities from the start. Kaufman, still a youngish scribe, was already gaining a reputation as a writer very involved with a given film at every stage (up until now that was a point in his favor; stay tuned). Kaufman attracted some big interest, and Bryan Singer was originally attached to direct Johnny Depp in the lead role. Once the two of them moved on it was Clooney who moved into the director’s chair, arguably enjoying the height of Clooneydom following O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Ocean’s Eleven. And the largest personality of them all might be Chuck Barris himself, author of the autobiography Confessions, host of a dozen late-night gameshows, veritable connoisseur of crap TV. Barris claimed he worked as an international CIA assassin on the side while producing television by day, which has never been confirmed or denied but does indeed make for one hell of a story.
Charlie Kaufman famously (okay, not so famously) disowned the final cut of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, citing Clooney’s reported failure to keep Kaufman involved in revisions and rewrites. “I had a movie that I wrote and this isn’t it,” said Kaufman, and continued on to laud the “process” of filmmaking that he felt required true collaboration between writer and director, stating that Jonze and Gondry understood this. He used the word “silly” to describe Clooney’s directing, which isn’t exactly damning criticism but also probably isn’t something most people tack onto George Freakin’ Clooney. Long story short: Kaufman dislikes Confessions.
The film does lack a certain Kaufmanesque absurdity. Part of the charm of Malkovich and Human Nature was that even though the premise of each was completely and thoroughly bonkers, for the most part everything still came together. That kind of focus can probably result from Kaufman’s idea of “process” as a highly collaborative effort that still entrusts the writing to the writer and the directing to the director, and it’s what makes his best screenplays — especially Malkovich — resist the idea of absurdity just for the sake of absurdity.
But weirdly enough the collaborative effort on Confessions — less writing-for-writer/directing-for-director and more everything-for-everyone — results in a different kind of absurdity, not bonkers and Kaufmanesque but fast and loose and flexible all the same. Barris is a walking identity crisis, looking for love one minute and swimming in women the next, hosting doomed game shows, flirting with international assassins, flirting with death. He’s a gleefully ignorant moron who quotes Carlyle. There’s the question of whether the life we’re watching is 100% true, or 90%, or only 50%, or if it’s 100% fiction, and it all unfolds in a scattered nonlinear fashion. Barris himself says it best in the opening five minutes: “Life was sweet…for a minute.”
So the melting pot mentality is actually perfect for Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, despite Kaufman’s disagreement, because the Barris identity crisis is seen and heard, yes, but also felt in every shot and sequence. Clooney emulates Steven Soderbergh as best he can, bringing in a few Ocean’s costars and a sharp soundtrack; many scenes also heavily recall the Coen Brothers (Clooney having just wrapped O Brother), especially one depicting the assassination of a man wearing cross-country skis. Intercut interviews with real people who knew the real Chuck Barris (or thought they did) provide yet another side to the film, another voice hoping to bring some version of the truth.
Ultimately every one of these parties agrees on one thing, and that’s what’s at the heart of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. The truth, quite simply, hardly ever measures up to a good story.