Agent Provocateur

I, Spy: Barrymore and Rockwell in Confessions.Photo: Takashi Seida

Chuck Barris, the television producer who gifted the world with The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show, is the protagonist of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, but what exactly about him is dangerous? And does he have a mind? Well, according to Barris’s 1982 autobiography, he would like you to believe he led a double life as a CIA assassin with 33 hits to his credit. His book is the basis for Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay, but unlike in the script for Adaptation, Kaufman doesn’t insert himself into the scenario or indulge his craving for mind games. He must have thought the material needed no further embellishment. Instead, Kaufman and George Clooney, who makes his directorial debut while also appearing as a blank-faced CIA operative, accept Barris’s wigged-out fantasia pretty much at face value. While we in the audience are saying, “Come on, Chuck Barris a hit man?,” they’re playing out his exploits as if they really occurred.

Sam Rockwell plays Barris with a hipster’s shimmy that’s creepily effective, especially when Barris is on his groggy downward slide in the Gong Show era, and Kaufman’s script, as usual, is bristling with pungent, oddball dialogue. Clooney shows some finesse as a director by keeping up with Kaufman’s twists and turns, but there aren’t enough of them. By taking Barris at his word – at least for dramatic purposes – Kaufman ends up dancing on the surface of this scummy pond. The shallowness is probably intentional, just as it was intentional for Paul Schrader in Auto Focus to portray Bob Crane, another lightweight TV personality, as a hollow man. Kaufman is fascinated by the power of the pop-cult void in our lives. Who better to personify the emptiness of trash culture than the man who created the template for today’s greed-head reality shows? But it’s a letdown to see Barris’s life played out as an American dream turned nightmare – as the place where showbiz and espionage meet. In the end, Barris doesn’t warrant such heavy-duty iconography, especially when he’s the one promoting his own deification.

Of course, this is deification Hollywood-style, self-abasing and awash in crocodile tears. Barris becomes a gibbering doper who hates himself, a sure sign that redemption is on the way. He wants to be forgiven for his sins. The most charitable way to interpret the CIA stuff is as Barris’s metaphor for his own career: He’s a hit man, all right, but it’s the American psyche that got hit, not foreign agents (one of whom is played by Julia Roberts as a kind of road-show Mata Hari). It’s a bit grandiose of Barris to detest himself for what he’s perpetrated, and more than a bit disappointing for truth-and-reality maestro Kaufman to buy in to the grandiosity. After all, we’re talking about a bunch of silly game shows here, and a public that needed no coercion to lap them up. Besides, the guy portrayed in this movie doesn’t appear to have a single genuine mea culpa in him. The problem with making a movie about a hollow man is that, when things start to get heavy, you’re stuck with nothingness at the core.

I’ve never understood why movie directors think that handheld, in-your-face camerawork means a greater dramatic intimacy. Often, it has the opposite effect: the Dramamine effect. The Son, directed by the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (La Promesse, Rosetta), is a prime piece of whirlybird filmmaking, and the technique saps what might have been a powerful experience. Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) is a carpentry instructor at a vocational-training center who goes into a tailspin when Francis (Morgan Marinne), the well-mannered 16-year-old who accidentally strangled Olivier’s child while trying to restrain him during a car-radio theft, enlists in his class. Recently released after five years in prison, Francis has no idea who his instructor really is, while Olivier, for reasons neither he nor his ex-wife can fathom, is drawn helplessly into the boy’s world. We can see how Olivier is carried beyond reason by his obsession, and yet most of the time his carefully maintained bourgeois blandness is the most shocking thing about him. Gourmet gives us all this in spite of the way the Dardennes keep darting around him, slamming us with close-ups instead of allowing his acting to do the job for them. Gourmet seems to be warding off some stranglers of his own.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1970 Le Cercle Rouge having its uncut theatrical U.S. premiere at Film Forum, and it’s a prime example of Gallic gangster fatalism. The cast is a rogues’ gallery of greats, including Alain Delon as a recently released convict who engineers an elaborate jewelry-store heist, Gian Maria Volonté as an on-the-lam prisoner who joins up, and Yves Montand as an alcoholic sharpshooter who undergoes a graphically gothic case of the d.t.’s, complete with skittering scorpions. André Bourvil gives a Sahara-dry performance as the police captain heading up the manhunt. Some of Melville’s longueurs are a bit too long, but at its best, the film compares favorably to its obvious antecedents, Rififi (which Melville once hoped to direct) and The Asphalt Jungle.

Nicholas Nickleby showcases some of the world’s finest and funniest actors having a high old time. It’s best enjoyed as a kind of traveling music-hall revue. Writer-director Doug McGrath has done a yeomanly job of paring down the bulk of Dickens’s tome without sacrificing dramatic logic. There’s much to see: Christopher Plummer as Nicholas’s munificently twisted Uncle Ralph; Jim Broadbent, who is clotted with lascivious villainy as Wackford Squeers, the head of a dungeonlike Yorkshire boarding school; Nathan Lane and Barry Humphries (a.k.a. Dame Edna) as the Crummleses, the giddy husband and wife who manage a troupe of actors; and Tom Courtenay as Newman Noggs, Uncle Ralph’s sloshed, wily manservant. Nicholas himself, as portrayed by Charlie Hunnam, as well as many of the other young performers, are dull and not remotely up to the snuff of their elders. In part, this is because they are playing virtuous people, and for Dickens, virtue is never as alluring as vice. But a bigger problem is that they don’t seem to have Dickens in their bones the way the older performers do. I hope this doesn’t mean that a particular kind of classics-based theatrical tradition, moonstruck and overripe, is passing away.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Directed by George Clooney; Starring Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore, and Julia Roberts; Opens December 31.
The Son
Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne; Starring Olivier Gourmet and Morgan Marinne; Opens January 10.
Le Cercle Rouge
Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville; Starring Alain Delon and Gian Maria Volonté; Opens January 10.
Nicholas Nickleby
Directed by Douglas McGrath; Starring Jim Broadbent and Christopher Plummer; Opens December 27.
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Agent Provocateur