“A ‘Dangerous’ Confection”
by Scott Mantz

“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”
Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore
Directed by George Clooney

Looking for a few good men! George Clooney recruits Sam Rockwell for “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”

Depending on how you look at it, 1997’s highly panned “Batman & Robin” was either the worst thing or the best thing to happen to George Clooney. On one hand, he insisted on blaming himself for the movie’s failure (even though it wasn’t his fault), but after that, he never looked back and did some of his best big screen work ever (“Out of Sight,” “Three Kings,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou” and the recent “Solaris”).

Now Clooney steps behind the camera for the first time to direct “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.” Based on the “unauthorized” autobiography of “Gong Show” host Chuck Barris, Clooney proves that he is a quick study by incorporating the techniques of almost every filmmaker he’s ever worked with. While the results are often stylish, interesting and humorous, the film unfortunately lacks focus and fails to resonate on an emotional level.

Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) was smart enough to recognize a good opportunity when he saw one. After making a name for himself as a cornball songwriter in the 60’s, he parlayed his success into creating a string of lowbrow game shows like “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game.” According to him, he balanced his time as a TV producer with being a covert CIA operative who killed more than 30 people over the next decade. By the time he got around to hosting “The Gong Show” in the ’70’s, the strain of his dual life caught up with him, leading him to put the “gong” on his secret identity once and for all.

Like most first-time filmmakers, Clooney can’t help but indulge in his inspirations, especially with regards to some of his past directors. He draws upon the rich cinematography of David O. Russell’s “Three Kings,” the oddball sophistication of the Coen brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” and the non-linear storytelling of Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight.” Beyond that, he intercuts his story with real-life interviews like Warren Beatty did in “Reds,” and he uses deep focus and shadows like Orson Welles did in…well, just about everything.

Yet for all its audacity, for all its ambitions and for all its allegations, the film comes up surprisingly short. As is often the case with celebrity biopics, there’s too much to do in too little time, and we never really make enough of an emotional connection to care about what happens to Barris. The fact that his dual life was never confirmed–nor denied–should be cause for even more psychological power, but the direction never matches the far out premise as adapted by Charlie Kaufman (who did wonders with the bizarre, multi-layered brilliance of “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation”).

That doesn’t stop Sam Rockwell from putting in a star-making performance. Perhaps best known as the villain from “Charlie’s Angels,” Rockwell lets it all hang out–quite literally at times–as the tortured “genius” who had a knack for appealing to the lowest common denominator. Despite his character’s shortcomings, Rockwell utilizes “Confessions” as a one-man show to effectively display the full range of his talent.

Clooney fills his supporting roles with some of his famous pals, including Drew Barrymore, who makes the most of her underdeveloped role as Rockwell’s free-spirited, way-too-understanding girlfriend. Much less effective is Julia Roberts, who all but walks through her brief, but pivotal role as the film’s femme fatale, but at least Clooney seems to be enjoying himself as the shady, mysterious, straight-laced CIA informant who recruits Rockwell into the big leagues.

“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” is frustratingly uneven and goes on a little too long, but it still holds plenty of interest and isn’t worthy of a “gong.” Clooney’s directorial debut has a lot of admirable qualities and ends up being more enjoyable than not, which ultimately makes it neither the best thing nor the worst thing that he’s ever done.