The Scarlet & Black

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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Game show emcee or assassin

by Courtney Sheehan
Oddball entries in a beloved author’s work are like soggy carmellotta bars in the d-hall. You know that an excess of gooey caramel should knock some points off that particular slice, but you just can’t say no to an extra dose of corn syrupy charm. As a mere screenwriter until his directorial debut in 2008’s Synecdoche, New York, (reviewed here last year) Charlie Kaufman’s auteur status in Hollywood is admirable. Films like “Being John Malkovich,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Adaptation” have firmly lodged his name among the greats. Although all distinctively marvelous, Kaufman’s work coheres around his brainy idiosyncrasies. Protagonists tend to be neurotic, flustered regular Joes with a metaphysical twist. Female characters are played with unusual grunginess by otherwise esteemed hard hitters or hotties (Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, Cameron Diaz). Chronological time is forsaken for disconcerting temporal lurches and spiraling bouts of depression regularly assail our heroes. Jokes about the banality of sand and “Flowers for Algernon” somehow soar.
For a collection of “different” movies, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” is even more different. The directorial debut of George Clooney, the suave salt-and-pepper actor took Kaufman’s Laws, heaved them into a biopic blender and poured out a smoothie that could have been smoother. At the time of its release, when the film opened to pretty ok reviews but downright lousy reception at the box office, Kaufman was pissed. He claimed that Clooney had butchered his brilliant script, the wacky tale of Chuck Barris, a real life guy who wrote pop songs in the ’60s that you’d still recognize today, single-handedly launched the heyday of game shows in the ’70s and had a habit of telling people that he was a super secret killer for the CIA. He wrote all this down in a memoir, and Kaufman, no doubt seeing the potential for uncomfortable jokes and barely controlled mental instability, ventured to bring the story to life. Alas, no one went to see this movie. So bad was the turnout, in fact, that Miramax re-released the film the next year, complete with a guilt trip advertising campaign that said things like, “You owe it to yourself to see this movie that George Clooney directed, because you didn’t the first time.” Being the Kaufmanite that I was as a young’n, I was pissed at this movie too. But upon re-watching it recently, I realized that it is viciously good.
First off, Sam Rockwell plays Barris. If you saw Moon in Harris at the end of last semester, you know that his rumpled everyday good looks don’t need to glisten in order for him to shine. On top of Rockwell’s skills, Michael Cera plays tyke-size Barris, a kid who gleefully solicits a girl to lick his junk, with the enticing line “it tastes like strawberries.” Cloonely rounds up a crew of A-list friends for the rest of the cast—Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts, Maggie Gyllenhaal. Even Matt Damon and Brad Pitt make cameos as contestants on “The Dating Game” (they don’t get picked). Interspliced with real interviews with Dick Clark and other game show big timers who knew Barris, the deeply saturated cinematography gleams with the kitschy glitz of the ’70s. Dark, heady, zany: Confessions may not exhibit the self-awareness that Kaufman painstakingly writes into his scripts, but such an unabashed ‘tude rings true with its subject: a game show emcee who aspired to be an assassin.

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