Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0007323, Tue, 31 Dec 2002 10:27:20 -0800

Fw: Hmmm, a game show host invoking Vladimir Nabokov ...

----- Original Message -----
From: Sandy P. Klein


True or Not, It's a Wonderful Life
By Gene Seymour

December 31, 2002

CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND (R). As the old blues song goes, George Clooney is taking a devil of a chance with his directorial debut by recounting the life, secret or otherwise, of game show impresario Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell in a star-making performance). Never mind whether you buy the stuff about Barris being a CIA hit man. The kooky yet shadowy vision Clooney sustains throughout is daring, inventive and impressive. With Drew Barrymore and Julia Roberts as the women in Barris' life, secret or otherwise. Script by Charlie Kaufman from Barris' "unauthorized autobiography." 1:53 (vulgarities, sexuality, violence). At select Manhattan theaters. Opens nationwide Jan. 17.

During a stretch of unemployment in the mid-1970s, I became addicted to watching "The Gong Show" every afternoon. You do desperate things with too much time on your hands.

I remember being taken aback one rainy day when I saw Chuck Barris, the show's smarmy producer-host, make an offhand reference to Humbert Humbert, the tragicomic narrator of "Lolita." I think it was because a couple of little girls got "gonged" (rejected) by the show's panel of judges.

I made a mental note: "Hmmm, a game show host invoking Vladimir Nabokov. And not just any game show host, but the sociopath who gave the world such dubious franchises for public humiliation as 'The Dating Game,' 'The Newlywed Game' and this tacky thing. Hmmm ... " And thought no more of it afterward.

Now here's "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," a movie version of Barris' 1984 "unauthorized autobiography" in which he not only talks about his - um - rise to the top of the game-show heap, but cops to being an assassin for the CIA in his (apparently) copious spare time. Imagine my surprise when a Nabokov quote is exchanged between Barris (Sam Rockwell) and a seductive agency operative (Julia Roberts) somewhere in Berlin.


I mention all this for the benefit of those who might be tempted to gulp down Barris' claims to have had murdered for Uncle Sam. Speculate all you want over whether the missions to Mexico and Eastern Europe really happened as they're depicted on-screen. All that stuff is just a distraction from what's really innovative about one of the dwindling year's best films.

Under the daring, rookie-of-the-year direction of George Clooney, "Confessions" the movie makes effective black- comic narrative out of Barris' whoppers by taking them, wholly and even exhaustively, at face value.

The stuff that sounds most believable in Barris' life would have made for a wild enough movie. The 1950s gave the Philadelphia-bred Barris an apprenticeship on "American Bandstand," composer's credit on Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon's "Palisades Park" and his first encounter with Penny (Drew Barrymore), a big-hearted hipster who, over time, becomes the love of his life.

The 1960s gave him a California bungalow, his TV breakthroughs - and, assuming you buy the scenario, his license to kill, courtesy of an enigmatic CIA "spook" named Byrd (Clooney in a wry, sharp-edged turn). The way it's told here, Barris would chaperone winning couples on "The Dating Game" to far- flung parts of the world, where he would carry out his lethal assignments.

If it's true, you wonder, why Chuck Barris? Well, you see, that's where the blithe and inspired Nabokovian conceit comes in. Barris, clearly, had newsstands of psychological "issues" going back to a sexually precocious childhood and a heedless yearning for risks of all kinds.

Rather than depicting such matters in a starkly dualistic framework such as the one that eventually emerged in last year's "A Beautiful Mind," Clooney and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (guess he didn't have trouble with this "Adaptation") allow the movie to get enraptured with a shadow world's sordid details, making them a seamless whole with Barris' crises of conscience over his life's work and his often desultory treatment of Penny. Somehow Clooney evokes the weirdness of real life and the reality in dreams with a seamless elegance and gimlet eye that the late Nabokov would have recognized - and appreciated.

The movie works so well on its own aesthetic terms that you're tempted to forget how much Clooney is able to get out of his actors. Rockwell's bust-out performance takes in a lot of emotional territory, from callow exuberance to crusty paranoia and blasted despair. Yet he contains the psychic swirl and tumult with remarkable poise.

Those who've seen Rockwell in smaller roles ("Welcome to Collinwood" and "Heist") shouldn't be surprised. What does surprise is Barrymore's engaging, no-sweat performance as Penny. For a change, she doesn't seem to be forcing or imposing sensuality. She seems more comfortable in her character's sympathetic yet skeptical persona than she's ever been on screen.

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