But I Really Wanna Direct
Three tips for happy moviegoing: Arrive early for good seats. Skip the Golden Topping(TM). And avoid movies directed by actors.
In rare cases can this advice be safely ignored. I’ve heard tell of theaters in rural Tennessee at which you can show up 10 minutes before a Friday-night showing of The Lord of the Rings and get a great seat. There was an arthouse in NYC that used to melt actual, real butter for the popcorn. And George Clooney’s coolness only expands when he gets behind the camera with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. But these are rare exceptions.
Confessions is like a gonzo version of A Beautiful Mind, with smirking, self-knowing Drew Barrymore (Donnie Darko, Olive, the Other Reindeer) as Jennifer Connelly and wry, self-deprecating Clooney himself as Ed Harris, and sly, twitchy Sam Rockwell (Charlie’s Angels, Galaxy Quest) as Russell Crowe. There’s no sweeping nobility, no Triumph of the Human Spirit, no upbeat ending, and no escape from the delusion. Hypnotic in its lunacy and sorta plaintive in its depiction of blustery patheticness, Confessions doesn’t even try to pretend that its protagonist is mentally ill… just crazy. It’s sad, and it’s hilarious, no matter how you take it. Either that Gong Show guy Chuck Barris was so insecure and so bored with his own life that he made up a story about being an assassin for the CIA, which is pitiful yet amusing, or Barris really was an assassin for the CIA, which means the world is even more fucked up than any of us knew, which is downright, insanely funny.
Barris wrote a book detailing his, ahem, double life, and Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Human Nature) turned it into a screenplay, and Clooney (Solaris, Welcome to Collinwood) makes an auspicious debut as a director transferring the unlikely tale to the screen. And he does so not only competently but with flourishes that are stylish without being showy, and worthy of someone far more experienced: faux (or are they?) documentary inserts, interviews with people Barris worked with, including Dick Clark and the Unknown Comic (still wearing his paper bag); long, seemingly uncut takes that pan back and forth in a single location during which great periods of time elapse. Clooney picked up a lot from Soderbergh, I’d guess, but you can’t fake the nonchalance with which he handles the material, the willingness to simply let it be itself, and the avoidance of deadly earnestness, which plagues many a first-time filmmaker, whether they’re actors or not.
This is a flick of delicious ironies, some supplied by Kaufman’s script — that a man like Barris, so humiliated by life, would turn humiliation into entertainment — and some supplied by Clooney, who casts well-known buddies in small parts without ever being self-indulgent with his own cleverness, and by bringing out aspects of those famous faces that we’d never guessed at before. Julia Roberts (Full Frontal, Ocean’s Eleven) has never been as genuinely entertaining as she is here in a small part as a femme fatale CIA operative — she’s probably just a figment of Barris’s imagination anyway, which is why Roberts can have so much fun parodying the cliché.
But her parody is perfectly balanced. Clooney reigns in his actors like a good director should, even when directing himself — Confessions never feels like the inmates are running the asylum. Which is, alas, more that can be said for Sonny, Nicolas Cage’s directorial debut, sunk by way too much indulgence of scene-chewing, teeth-gnashing actorliness, including his own cameo, over the top and hilarious for all the wrong reasons.
James Franco (Spider-Man, City by the Sea) is an extremely talented actor, but one still young and inexperienced enough to need a stronger director than Cage, who allows him to emote all over the place as Sonny Phillips, a New Orleans gigolo who’s trying to go straight. Screenwriter John Carlen’s setup right there tells you some kind of artistic discretion is needed unless you want to go straight to camp, but Cage lets Sonny’s tale play out like a bad and boring porno, loud and stiff (heh) and without an ounce of real emotion. Cage lets Brenda Blethyn (Little Voice) — as Jewel, Sonny’s mother and, I love this, pimp — rage around screeching in a hideous Louisiana accent, and lets Mena Suvari (The Musketeer, American Beauty) — as Carol, Jewel’s new girl and new pal to Sonny — pout excessively. Only Harry Dean Stanton (The Pledge, The Green Mile), as Jewel’s longtime gentleman friend, maintains his dignity, but Cage snatches it back from him with one of the most cliché-ridden and unintentionally funniest death scenes I’ve ever seen.
Rent Sonny someday, and fast-forward to toward the end, when Cage himself appears as Acid Yellow, dope dealer, pimp, and flaming queer. It’s a riot. Then go back and watch him in Raising Arizona or Adaptation to be reminded that outrageousness and ridiculousness do not have to go hand in hand. Then hope that Cage does the same thing before he makes his next film.