George Clooney just isn’t a great director

Our series exploring Montreal-shot movies tackles Clooney’s debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which is more memorable for the gossip it generated than the film itself.

Sam Rockwell in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

Alex Rose’s Made in MTL is a series profiling films from the vaults that were shot and sometimes set in Montreal.

confessThe film: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

Does Montreal play itself?: No, but for the first time in Made in MTL history, Montreal actually stands in for several locations, be it Philly, West Berlin or Manhattan. Tropical exteriors were shot in appropriately tropical locations, while our snowy cobblestone streets did what they do best.

Notable local talent: Clooney managed to get friends and acquaintances to appear even in tiny roles in the film, but the entirety of the smaller roles are filled by local actors (some local actors even appear in scenes clearly not shot here, an expense that could not have been cleared by, say, Island of the Dead). Notables include Rachelle Lefevre as Sam Rockwell’s now grown-up childhood crush, Sean Tucker as a barfly and an unrecognizable (for obvious reasons) Joe Cobden as the paper-bag-wearing “Unknown Comic.” As he mentions in his article from last year, local funnyman Mike Paterson also has a small role.

Most egregious local landmark: This being of considerably higher budget and pedigree than a lot of the more obscure movies covered here, a lot of it happens on custom-built sets (often recreations of old game-show sets). Nevertheless, Old Montreal makes a strong showing with scenes shot on McGill street, Place d’Youville and the ubiquitous Place Ville Marie. A scene in a Helsinki bar was shot in the old dinner theatre on Ile Ste-Hélène, and a quick scene takes place on the ferris wheel at La Ronde.

confess4Everyone loves George Clooney. It seems inconceivable that someone would see Clooney, the same Clooney we all see, and not feel at least a tiny pang of lust/jealousy/admiration/gas. Montreal particularly loved Clooney in 2001, when he chose our chilly streets to direct his first movie. I remember because, even though I was a teenager and still a few years away from living here, I was acutely aware that Clooney was making a movie in Montreal. It was all over the place and became doubly unavoidable when he began dating a hostess from Globe, that swanky/tacky Lower Main supperclub inexplicably favoured by celebrities and old guys with money. Clooney was so ubiquitous that even though I saw the film when it came out, all I could remember about it was that Clooney had gotten laid here.

Talk about an obvious thing to remember.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind should have made a bigger splash. Boasting a script by Charlie Kaufman and an all-star cast, it’s based on the true-ish story of Chuck Barris, game-show producer, songwriter and CIA assassin. Rockwell plays Barris, a frustrated schmuck who works his way up from NBC page to assistant to Dick Clark to finally becoming a semi-successful game show producer with a girlfriend (Drew Barrymore) he’s reluctant to commit to. It’s while he’s failing upwards that Barris is approached by Jim Byrd (Clooney), a CIA agent who recruits him to become a globe-trotting assassin. As he becomes increasingly successful in television (he even ends up hosting the televised freak show that was The Gong Show), the duties of his “other job” begin to wear on him.

confess2Shot in a kaleidoscopic array of washed-out filters and blown-out colours, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind very much feels like a first film by someone who’s been paying way too much attention to the things he’s worked on before. The visuals are precise and opulent to the point of feeling pretty derivative. Despite Clooney taking clear inspiration from conspiracy thrillers of the ’70s, it feels more like a product of its time, a mash-up of Soderbergh’s colour-coded Traffic and the Coen Brothers’ zippy filmmaking. There’s not much George Clooney in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, but there’s a lot of what George Clooney is into.

It doesn’t help that what’s on-screen seems like a rather weak (and suspiciously straight-forward) effort from idiosyncratic writer Charlie Kaufman. Indeed, Kaufman later accused Clooney of butchering his screenplay and cutting him out of the filmmaking process so much that the end product resembles in no way the script that Kaufman wrote. While this is a fairly common complaint of writers since pretty much the dawn of time, it accurately mirrors Confessions of a Dangerous Mind’s mishmash of half-baked ideas. Like a lot of first films, it suffers from “this-may-never-happen-again” syndrome, crammed with disparate styles and ideas.

conress3Sam Rockwell had been getting steady character work for years before landing this plum gig, and his performance holds up better than the rest of the movie. It’s the kind of role most actors would kill for, alternately charming and pathetic in equal measure. Rockwell makes the film hypnotic even when it isn’t, even when cameos by the likes of Julia Roberts suddenly turn the film into more of a self-conscious lark. Even today, this stands out as some of Rockwell’s best and most rounded work.

Clooney has directed four more movies since Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, all of which have been rather indifferently received. All of his subsequent movies have suffered from the same bogarting of styles (to the detriment of Clooney developing a personal style) and all of them have attracted fantastic casts that are often above the material given (Good Night and Good Luck, my personal favourite of Clooney’s directorial efforts, is perhaps not coincidentally the one that avoids this the most).Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a decent movie that should’ve been a great one. Clooney may still have a great film in him, but he needs to tap into his inner Clooney to make it. ■

Alex Rose explores the worst of cinema on his podcast and blog, Why Does It Exist? @whydoesitblog on Twitter

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