How does George Clooney handle his first job as a director? He makes a game of it. Smart move, since Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is more a game than a movie — at least it is when Clooney is doing it right. The film trips him up at times. How could it not, with such a seductive con artist as Chuck Barris at its center?
From the 1960s onward, Barris produced dumbed-down TV crap that really hit the ratings fan. Even if you don't remember The Dating Game or The Newlywed Game, you're still feeling their reality-TV influence (try The Bachelor). Barris sank lowest and rose highest as host of The Gong Show (1976 to 1980), featuring rank-amateur talents. Think American Idol's Simon Cowell with a gong.
In 1982, Barris wrote what he called an unauthorized autobiography, in which he confessed to "polluting the airwaves with mind-numbing puerile entertainment." Wait. He also said he was a CIA hit man who used his gigs as a chaperone on The Dating Game in Helsinki and West Berlin to "murder thirty-three human beings."
How do you carve a movie out of that delusion? With your sense of humor firmly in place, if you're Clooney and the brilliantly eccentric screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Confessions isn't always coherent, but it's sharply comic and surprisingly touching, so hold the gong. Clooney's first masterstroke was casting Sam Rockwell (Charlie's Angels), who catches the clapping, dancing, squinting TV Barris and then cuts deeper to show a guy with the smarts to know he's better than the garbage he's disseminating. No wonder he invents a fantasy life of murdering people — he's already murdered their minds. It's a daring, dazzling performance.
Clooney shows real verve with the actors. Drew Barrymore brings light and provocative shadows to Penny, Chuck's loyal girlfriend. And Julia Roberts, without a movie to carry, plays it fun and loose as a spy out of Chuck's fantasies. The only dull role is Jim Byrd, the CIA operative who gives Chuck his orders to kill; Clooney plays Byrd himself, forgetting everything he ever learned about star charm.
Unlike some other actors turned directors, Clooney doesn't take the easy way with his turn behind the camera. No intimate character piece like what Denzel Washington pulls off with Antwone Fisher and Nicolas Cage botches with Sonny. Clooney tackles a far-reaching absurdist fantasy with Barris as a paradigm of paranoia. He wisely hooks up with talent he worked with as an actor: cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, from Three Kings; editor Stephen Mirrione, from Ocean's Eleven.
Things get sticky when Kaufman's script backs into dark corners. For now, Clooney lacks the buoyant touch required to ease us out the way Spike Jonze did with Kaufman's scripts for Adaptation and Being John Malkovich. But there's no denying Clooney's talent for the game. Taking cues from directors he admires — old pros such as Sidney Lumet (Network), Mike Nichols (Carnal Knowledge) and the late Alan Pakula (The Parallax View) and contemporaries including his producing partner Steven Soderbergh — Clooney fashions a style all his own: visceral, vital and churning with off-the-wall ideas. That's what makes you want to see Clooney direct again. You can feel his joy in it.