He had the perfect cover: TV producer by day, CIA operative by night. Stranger than fiction, or just plain fiction? It's anybody's guess in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, a sharp adaptation of the unusual memoir of Chuck Barris, creator of The Newlywed Game, The Dating Game, and The Gong Show (which he also hosted). The story covers the life of the TV iconoclast in his own words, from his 1940s childhood through his Hollywood success and subsequent downfall. The kicker here is Barris's claim that throughout his entire career he moonlighted as a CIA assassin. As a result, Confessions plays out as half biographical drama and half spy thriller, also tracking the purported killer from initial recruitment to lethal climax. Sam Rockwell stars as Barris and has the man down to a tee, from physical appearance to goofy persona. In his directing debut, George Clooney offers a stylized yet light touch, keeping the showy theatrics to a minimum and relying more on the natural quirkiness of the narrative, which is scripted with eccentric glee by Charlie Kaufman. In fact, the conceit of the film is so brilliant that it's easy to lose sight of what a deft adaptation Clooney and Kaufman have wrought, with sharp dialogue, inventive staging, and a charming cast that includes Julia Roberts, Drew Barrymore, and Clooney himself in a mesmerizing turn as Barris's mysterious, mustachioed CIA contact. Those with fond memories of Barris's TV shows will also find this trip down memory lane a delight -- right down to the interview clips with the likes of Gong Show regular Jaye P. Morgan and Dating Game host Jim Lange. But the question remains: Is this a true-life story or a tongue-in-cheek metaphor for the caprices of the human psyche? Actually, it's hard to say which is the more intriguing possibility. Either way, the result is an off-kilter comedy-drama that is by turns amusing and head spinning, a perfect tribute to of one of television's dark geniuses.
George Clooney shows the necessary skills to maintain a career as a director with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. He has a quirky, unconventional eye that certainly suits the material and manages to be confident without being too showy -- he never loses sight of why he is going to the occasional visual extreme. Less surprisingly, Clooney has a sure hand with his actors. Sam Rockwell is outstanding as Barris, managing to make the audience relate to him both through his excellent evocation of the real man and through a natural charm that feels like a combination of character and actor. This is the kind of performance that gets an actor years of steady work. Drew Barrymore is her usual winning self as the long-suffering girlfriend of the main character, Clooney himself does subtle acting work, and Julia Roberts is genuinely interesting as the femme fatale. The only major fault lies in the story itself. While it is fun to guess if Barris' claim that he was a CIA agent is genuine, the film takes at face value that it did happen. That leads to a dramatically slow second half where the novelty has worn off and the story grows repetitive with Barris' cycle of assassination, game show work, relationship troubles, self-doubt, assassination (etc., etc., etc.), becoming a letdown after the hilarious rush of the film's first hour. That said, the film is never less than watchable, and any film that contains a womanizing main character being confronted about his existential doubt by a nude woman in a pool at the Playboy mansion grotto has its heart and sense of humor in the right place.
The fascination of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the sharp, funny, unreasonably compelling adaptation of Barris' autobiography, is the way it soft-shoes past our skepticism.
A darkly enjoyable roller-coaster ride -- Clooney and Kaufman deftly interweave the macabre with lightheartedness. Desson Howe
A head-clearing, mind-blowing blast from the past - one of the year's best. Lou Lumenick