Forget, for a moment, that you have heard of George Clooney. Forget that he's the suave Sinatra substitute of Ocean's Eleven, the contemporary Cary Grant from Out Of Sight, the gruff Clint Eastwood in Three Kings. Because there are pros and cons to being a major movie star with smarts, - someone who wants to create as well as perform. Yes, it means somebody, somewhere (in this case Miramax) will make your movie. But it also means you're frying under a 10,000-watt spotlight while you do it, everyone wanting to watch the Big Star screw up.
Well not us. We like George Clooney, and we're happy to report that his directorial debut is far from a vanity project. That said, it's also far from a masterpiece.
It's an adaptation of a memoir by Chuck Barris, a game-show producer and presenter little known on these shores. The major disappointment is that while the "unauthorised autobiography" of the creator of The Dating Game and The Gong Show has a nice central conceit - television whizz turns assassin - there's not much of a story. As a result, as hard as the director tries (chucking stylistic trick after stylistic trick at the screen), Clooney can't compensate for the lack of a narrative through-line in Charlie Kaufman's still-funny script. Barris starts off as a self-hating, delusional prick. He finishes as a self-hating, delusional prick. With a beard.
The movie slows from a sprint opening, with laughs surrounding Barris' sexual ineptitude and fledgling TV career, into an uncertain shuffle, as he enters John Le Carré territory in the '60s and '70s under the tutelage of spook Jim Byrd (Clooney). Barris is torn between a safe existence, with his hippy girlfriend Drew Barrymore (her usual love-her, hate-her self), or the glamorous underworld, as personified by Julia Roberts' would-be femme fatale. The spy scenes are supposed to have an air of artificiality about them - clearly no one thinks Barris is telling the truth - but they too often tip over into self-conscious silliness.
You could argue the uncertainty of tone is simply a reflection of Barris' turbulent noggin, but it's a bit of a stretch. More convincing is the case that a movie about unfulfillment is inevitably unfulfilling. For Confessions is at its most affecting in the closing 20 minutes, when Barris begins to completely unravel, looking back on a career working for an imperialistic, insidious corruptor of nations (and the CIA). "I am disposable. I dispose of people and yet I'm disposable," he tells Roberts.
From the writer of Adaptation and a famously savvy star/director, it's hard not to read his crisis as a reflection of the makers' own doubts about the true worth of a life in showbiz. Confessions may not assuage these doubts, but it's an interesting exploration of them nonetheless.
George Clooney's behind-the-camera bow is a funny and stylish shuffle along the edge of sanity. Pace is a problem, but there's enough spark to suggest that Clooney's a director to watch.