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Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2003
I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you film me?
Mainstream American cinema, more than any other country's, is uniquely obsessed with success stories. The sort of characters who populate films by Ken Loach, Abbas Kiarostami or Hou Hsiao-hsien are persona non grata in Hollywood. But let's face it: Nobody who goes to Tinseltown to pitch a project is lacking in self-confidence or in the desire to succeed big-time. You don't sell self-doubt and insecurity to people in Armani suits and four-figure eyewear.
Unless, that is, you're screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who seems to be making a decent career out of failure. His big break came with "Being John Malkovich," a curiously cautionary tale about a failed puppeteer-turned-clerk who manages to hijack a celebrity's fame. It ends in diaster, though, and he loses both of the women he loves in the process, a remarkably downer ending to such a bizarrely amusing film.
Kaufman picks up where he left off with his scripts for two new films, "Adaptation" and "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind." The former, directed by "Malkovich's" Spike Jonze, is a dementedly brilliant comedy about writer's block, while the latter is an equally strange biopic of trash-TV producer Chuck Norris, who claims to also have been a CIA assassin. After "Malkovich," Kaufman was quoted as saying he didn't want to get pigeon-holed as "the guy who does the weird stuff," but he's certainly not going to change that perception with these flicks, which are about as "normal" as a Captain Beefheart album.
"Adaptation" is a Charlie Kaufman script about, well, Charlie Kaufman not being able to write a script. If this sounds like he's taking the piss, he is, and the film is full of laughs at the expense of Charlie's onscreen character. As played by Nicholas Cage -- with the added flab of a professional couch potato -- Charlie is a whiney-voiced, sweaty, self-obsessed nebbish. Cage, an actor so often in overdrive, seems like he's been castrated: Even his facial features are flaccid, his gaze soft and unfocused, afraid to express any desire.
A voice-over takes us into his head, and the turbulent crisis of confidence that Charlie's going through after the success of "Malkovich." Thoughts race by as the page in his typewriter remains blank: "If I stopped putting things off, I'd be happier. . . . Do I have an original thought in my head? . . . I need to turn my life around . . . just be real, be confident . . . but I'd still be as ugly as hell. . . . I'd like one of those muffins right about now."
Charlie's personal hell stems from a job he's accepted, to do a screen adaptation of journalist Susan Orleans' book "The Orchid Thief" (a situation lifted from Kaufman's actual life). Charlie's almost-girlfriend Amelia (Cara Seymour) tells him "I'm glad you took the 'Orchid' job. It's good for you to get out of your head." Little does she know: Charlie's screenplay begins with "Why am I here? How did I get here?" Cue a flashback to 40 billion years earlier -- one of Spike Jonze's frequent visual jokes.
"Write what you know" is the advice handed out to young authors: But what if all you know is sitting in front of a typewriter, self-loathing and jacking off in your dingy bedroom? Charlie's problem is that Orleans' book is driven by passion: There's the eponymous "orchid thief" -- a white-trash con-man named John Laroche (Chris Cooper), driven to spend his whole life looking for the Ghost Orchid, "the sexiest flower on earth" -- and the mutual drive of Orleans (Meryl Streep) to follow this story, wherever it may lead. Passion, however, is exactly what Charlie lacks. He can't even bring himself to give Amelia a kiss when she throws herself at him.
Complicating matters is the presence of Charlie's amiable dunce of a twin brother, Donald (also played by Cage), for whom "artistic integrity" is about as relevant as Hindu metaphysics. He's working on a screenplay too, a nonsensical three-act serial-killer formula piece, and the unthinking ease with which he cranks it out and gets it sold annoys the hell out of Charlie. But it's to Donald, the voice of convention, that Charlie must turn when he's at wit's end . . .
Jonze and Kaufman deftly weave together actual treatments of Charlie's "Orchid Thief" ideas with his struggles to write the film. Finally, like a snake swallowing its own tail, the two merge in a remarkable fashion, with the film giving us a self-consciously Hollywood finale featuring drugs, guns and a car chase, everything Charlie swore to avoid. Kaufman manages to have his cake and eat it too.
The tension between commercial sell-out and something loftier, between entertaining and enlightening also lies at the heart of "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind." The film is told in the confessional voice of Chuck Barris -- best known as the host of the insipidly brainless '70s anti-talent show, "The Gong Show," in which piss-poor acts were booked and encouraged to make fools of themselves on national TV -- as he looks back on his career. "One day," admits Barris (played here by Sam Rockwell), "I wanted to be the writer who lesser people would quote, but I am that lesser person. In addition, I have murdered 33 human beings."
That's right. In his 1984 "unauthorized biography," Barris "confessed" to having been an assassin for the CIA for decades, a claim that anyone familiar with Barris' gonzo onscreen personality would find it hard to take seriously. It would be as if wild-man photographer Nobuyoshi Araki suddenly revealed that he was a cross-dressing lesbian. But less interesting than whether it was true or not is why Barris would create a fiction like this.
Barris built a career on cannily underestimating the tastes of the American public, designing crude, low-brow fare like "The Dating Game" and "The Newlywed Game," laugh-at-the-moron programming that stands as the antecedent to today's "reality TV." Barris' motto was that "any American would sell out his or her spouse for a new refrigerator," a cynically accurate view of the consumerist medium in which he made his own fame and fortune.
Perhaps his invention of a secret life as a superspy bedding East European femmes fatales was just an outrageous ploy to spice up the biography of a TV personality who'd outlived his 15 minutes of fame. Or perhaps it goes deeper, an acknowledgment of the essential meaninglessness of a life devoted to providing time-killing "content." Or maybe it was all true; the clown was a killer and this tore his life apart. Stranger folks have worked for the CIA, after all. Most likely, though -- a possibility the film only hints at -- the spy story was the only cover for the sudden and lengthy absences Barris was known for, absences best explained by an all-too-common '70s drug habit. (Again, see Barris' behavior on "The Gong Show.")
George Clooney makes his directorial debut with "Confessions," but with the help of cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (who worked with Clooney on "Three Kings"), it is surprisingly assured and inventive. The film plays with genres, flirting with kitschy '60s/'70s nostalgia as it traces the rise of Barris' inane game shows, then flitting into 007/John LeCarre mode for the spy stories in East Berlin, with Julia Roberts as his contact, and Clooney himself as his handler.
The film gets a lot of laughs from the sheer improbability of the situation, along with Barris' character itself: a manic, fast-talking guy, the kind of big-smile used-car salesman type who was clever enough to move into entertainment. He's the opposite of "Charlie Kaufman," driven by his need to shag lots of women and to have a lifestyle that makes it possible. And yet there's this creeping dissatisfaction that drives him to murder people or become insanely paranoid or both. Rockwell gives us a fascinating, mood-swinging performance, with lots of clues but no easy answers as to what makes this guy tick.
It's more than a touch ironic, after viewing Kaufman's frantic and futile attempts to adapt Susan Orleans' work in "Adaptation," that with "Confessions" he has adapted Barris' book with wit, insight and a bit of his own voice as well. Along with "The People vs. Larry Flynt" and "Auto Focus" (focusing on "Hogan's Heroes" star and sex fiend Bob Crane, opening later this fall), "Confessions" stands as a fascinating addition to the alt-biopic genre, casting a light on the warped aspects of celebrity. Now when do we get the Don "Top Gun" Simpson story?