LOS ANGELES, Dec. 31 (UPI) -- It's remarkably hard to make a good movie. As evidence, consider that Charlie Kaufman, author and main character of the delightful "Adaptation," is today's hottest screenwriter -- yet, two out of his three films this year misfired.
Do you remember Kaufman's "Human Nature" from last spring? I don't. According to the invaluable Internet Movie Database (imdb.com), it earned tepid reviews and a mere million box-office bucks. And Kaufman's new "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" -- a quasi-biopic about TV game show pioneer Chuck Barris that opens New Year's Eve in Los Angeles and New York and Jan. 10 nationwide -- is strangely forgettable.
"Confessions" isn't bad. It packs plenty of star power as George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Drew Barrymore contribute major supporting roles. Indie film actor Sam Rockwell competently plays Barris as an archetypal backstage hustler.
Clooney directs the actors ably and, for a first time director, delivers a lot of visual panache. For example, Clooney shoots Barris's early years to look like the hand-colored photos from very old National Geographics.
The only problem with "Confessions" is that Kaufman failed to give the movie a reason to exist.
Barris was an energetic Jewish kid from Philadelphia with shallow but broad talents. He wrote the 1962 hit song "Palisades Park" and a best-selling novel as he erratically worked his way up the ladder in daytime television.
Barris's history-changing insight, the E=MC-squared underlying half of what's on TV these days, is that enormous numbers of salt-of-the-earth Americans desperately want to be on television. Any kind of television. Even Barris's shows: "The Dating Game," "The Newlywed Game," or -- why not? -- "The Gong Show."
This must drive the privacy advocates at the American Civil Liberties Union to despair. They slave away to help us keep the tiniest details of our lives secret from prying eyes. Yet, what half of America really wants -- privacy be damned! -- is to be recognized by strangers on the street as the reality TV contestant who vomited while trying to eat a slug or who punched his Mom on a talk show for toilet training him badly.
I watched "The Dating Game" regularly in the 1960s. Granted, I was a particularly naïve child, but I didn't realize until now just how off-color the jokes were. (Still, that surprise was nothing compared to the one I received recently when, for the first time since I was a 10, I saw an episode of "Gomer Pyle, USMC." Don't ask and hopefully Gomer won't tell.)
While hosting "The Gong Show" in the late 1970s, Barris became increasingly jittery, sweaty, red-eyed, and paranoid. In 1981, he suffered a breakdown and holed up naked in a New York hotel room for several months.
All this was fairly close to standard operating procedure for entertainment industry weasels during the Great Hollywood Snowstorm. Barris, though, came up with a creative explanation for his career-ruining behavior.
While locked in his room growing a Howard Hughes beard, he typed his "Confessions." In them, he alleged that the reason he had grown so, uh, nervous was that he had a second career as a CIA assassin in which he had patriotically murdered 33 people. But now, elements within the Agency were after him.
Well ... sure, Chuck, anything you say!
So, what does Hollywood's cleverest screenwriter do with this material? Zip. He just plays it straight, as if Barris really was a game show host/hitman who'd run into some understandable career difficulties combining his day job and night job.
Unfortunately, Kaufman -- whose main interests appear to be show biz and pseudo-intellectualizing (in "Adaptation" he gave Charles Darwin a cameo to propound a laughably wrong version of what biologists mean by "adaptation") -- can't think of anything interesting to say about the CIA or the Cold War.
The spy scenes are so rote that they look like Kaufman's research consisted of watching a couple of John Le Carré spy movies. As Barris' spookmaster, Clooney delivers another imposing movie star performance; but as the Mata Hari spy, even Julia Roberts can't create any excitement.
What could Kaufman have done instead? Lots. He could, for example, have made a culture clash comedy about Barris rotating between the highly Protestant CIA and the highly Jewish television business. (By the way, the FBI, as exemplified by Tom Hanks' Agent Hanratty in "Catch Me If You Can," was always quite Catholic.)
The CIA then believed Skull & Bones Yale men with trust funds were less of a security risk than Jews, who might have family or friends on the other side of the Iron Curtain. In return, countless Hollywood films stereotyped CIA higher-ups as thin-lipped, soulless, and incompetent WASPs.
Rated R for language, sexual content, and violence.