A movie with guts

Mom? Yeah, I’ve got this girl on my lap. Do you think I should have sex with her?

Mom? Yeah, I’ve got this girl on my lap. Do you think I should have sex with her?

Rated 5.0

Big risk-taking can be such a beautiful thing. Strange, hilarious and a visual treat, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind stands as a magnificent directorial debut for George Clooney, and further proof that Sam Rockwell is one of the best actors on the planet.

This is an artistically daring picture, merging historical TV moments with passages from an “unauthorized autobiography” written by Chuck Barris, former television mogul and creator of The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show. The book was notorious for Barris’ claim that, while commandeering his hit TV shows, he served as an assassin for the CIA.

Clooney and team have made the wise choice of approaching the material as if it were a true-to-life biography of the man whose programming, many claim, was the start of the disintegration and demoralization of American television. Many who go to this film, unaware that Barris’ biography has pretty much been dismissed as a major stretching of the truth, might actually leave the picture believing the murderous passages to be truthful.

As Barris, Rockwell gives one of the year’s best performances, and certainly the funniest. He looks like Barris, and in the film’s recreation of scenes from The Gong Show, is spot-on in his portrayal of the goofy game show guru. He portrays Barris behind the scenes as a confused, wounded personality, sweet enough to win the love of his girl (Drew Barrymore), but cold enough to kill. It’s a star-making performance.

This is quite a difficult film for a directorial debut, and Clooney makes the task all the tougher by casting himself as CIA Agent Jim Byrd. His drier-than-crackers, steel-mannered performance is the perfect complement to Rockwell’s manic Barris, and would’ve been a great accomplishment in itself.

What sets Clooney’s effort apart from that of most of his fellow actors-turned-directors is the film’s tremendous sense of adventure. Clooney sets a tone that, while he certainly borrows from other influences, manages to be something all his own. How refreshing to watch a film in which a well-established personality like Clooney takes tremendous risks, many of them bizarre, and pulls them off heroically.

The look of the film is often vibrant, expressing a blissfully spontaneous energy, such as in scenes where entire walls slide off the screen to reveal new locations. When the material becomes darker, so does the film, with Clooney and Rockwell handling the mood swings with ease.

All of this amounts to one of the better directorial debuts of recent memory, right up there with Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich. It should be noted that Jonze’s screenwriting cohort, Charlie Kaufman, penned the Confessions script, and his sense of absurdity comes across nicely. Discerning filmgoers will recognize the bleached-out look of Newton Thomas Sigel’s camerawork. (Sigel shot the impressive-looking Three Kings.)

Clooney also deserves accolades for his work with the actors. Rockwell clearly excels under his direction, and Barrymore shines as Penny, Barris’ sunny, mistreated lover. Julia Roberts gets a chance to cut up as a fellow CIA assassin, continuing her recent, impressive streak of risk taking. And when is the last time you heard the words “Rutger Hauer” and “great performance” in the same sentence? You’re hearing them now: Rutger Hauer delivers a great performance as one of Barris’ troubled killing partners.

Clooney fought for the casting of Sam Rockwell over the capable likes of Ben Stiller, Mike Myers and Johnny Depp, and this was a masterstroke. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind might not catapult Rockwell to stardom, but it should get him to the point where filmgoers start remembering his name. Expect further greatness from this man, and his undeniably talented director.