Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is George Clooney’s directorial debut, but, if you didn’t know it, you’d swear it was the concoction of a seasoned filmmaker. While the erstwhile lions of film culture seem to be fumbling with misbegotten, less-than-successful ventures like Autofocus and Gangs of New York, Clooney and his team have fashioned a rip-roaring jolt of a movie, two hours that remind us that story and style can co-exist in a fierce, exhilarating embrace.
The film is based on the autobiography of TV legend Chuck Barris, in which he recounts his rise in the ’60s and ’70s as producer of such rowdy, culture-defining fare as The Dating Game and The Gong Show. Barris goes on to detail his adventures in the thick of the Cold War when, he alleges, he served as a hitman for the CIA. Whether you buy Barris’ dubious claim or not, the sheer zest and energy on display here render any misgivings unimportant.
While scraping by as an underling at ABC, Barris, played to the hilt by Sam Rockwell, hits on the idea of The Dating Game. Downtrodden during his initial struggles to sell the show, Barris is approached by a CIA recruiter (Clooney) who entices him to sign on for a life—albeit a covert and dangerous one—of heroic espionage. As Barris embarks on his double life, Confessions branches out into parallel stories which take on their own complications, eventually overlapping and blurring.
Among these complications are Penny (Drew Barrymore), Barris’ girlfriend, and Patricia Watson (Julia Roberts), a CIA operative who seduces Barris. While Watson’s wiles are easy for Barris to succumb to, it’s his love for Penny that forces him confront his own fears of commitment. That sounds a bit clichéd, but Clooney’s film goes further as it delves into Barris’ tortured past, dredging up some disturbing, though fascinating, explanations for what drives those fears, as well as his deep desire for approval and the appeasement of his male ego.
Over the years, a gamut of writers worked on Confessions until Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) hammered it into its final shape. While not a particularly in-depth character study—what really drives Barris’ zeal for fame remains shadowy—Kaufman’s script appeals by virtue of its ambitions. Equal parts psychodrama, Cold War thriller, romantic comedy and an Alger-esque rags-to-riches yarn, Confessions engages on every front.
Rockwell steals the show in a performance that plays up its comic potential without losing sight of its pathos. He’s ably supported by Barrymore in a role tailored to her sweet, quirky persona, by Clooney himself as the delightfully deadpan recruiter and, of course, Rutger Hauer as an aging hitman who relishes his job a bit too much.
Clooney and his cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel, create a kaleidoscope of styles, from the staid sepias of the ’40s, to the burnt ochres of Mexico and the nervy, pan-and-zooms of the ’60s, before hitting the candy-coated, soft-focus hues of the ’70s. The film’s visual dynamics, including its giddily inspired staging, blend into the fabric of its narrative, always complementing its pace and mood, never overwhelming it.
Only a first-timer, free from the trappings of an auteuristic ego and from studio expectations, could’ve told a story so passionately and efficiently at once. Confessions is an auspicious debut, and the closest the majors have come in years to fearlessly expressive moviemaking.
Directed by: George Clooney
Written by: Charlie Kaufman
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore, George Clooney, Michael Cera, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon