Within this set of "Confessions" lurk the answers to several salient questions. Is screenwriter Charlie Kaufman any damn good without director Spike Jonze? (Last year's God-awful "Human Nature" seemed to indicate not.) Can George Clooney direct? And most of all, did TV crap-slinger Chuck Barris supplement his cathode atrocities by working as a contract killer for the CIA?
The answer to the first two is an emphatic "yes." As for the third -- well, we'll just have to take the movie's word for it.
Kaufman has found his dream property in Barris' "unauthorized autobiography," in which the erstwhile TV producer asserted that the crimes he perpetrated against American culture (he created "The Dating Game" and "The Gong Show," among others) obscured his side job as a government assassin. That claim -- which Barris to this day refuses to rescind -- proves the fodder for a self-aware comedy that covers the same mutant show-biz ground as Kaufman's "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation." Sly noir maneuvers rule the screen as the ups and downs of Barris' (Sam Rockwell) career make him easy prey for a square-jawed government recruiting agent (Clooney). From there on, scenes of soundstage toil alternate with top-secret hits carried out in foreign lands, both limned with the same deadpan eye.
Juxtaposing these twin conceits is the sole trick of which the movie seems capable, but it does so with postmodernist gusto. There's also a subtle suggestion that Barris' two worlds may not be so different after all: An FCC representative who threatens a passel of potentially potty-mouthed game-show contestants displays a Puritanical zeal of which J. Edgar Hoover would heartily approve. (It's the funniest case of verbal battery since the Cowboy's monologue in "Mulholland Drive.")
Rockwell makes Barris a particularly self-doubting breed of odd duck. At first, it's hard to picture him becoming the furiously boogie-ing emcee who promised America he'd "be right back with more ... stuff." But Rockwell eases into it at a pace that reconciles the public and private sides of the character's personality. Clooney's G-man is one of those quirky parts in which he occasionally shines (and that he has the unfortunate habit of following up with three consecutive jobs that require him to do no more than be George Clooney). Drew Barrymore plays Barris' flaky girlfriend, turning in her most charming work since "The Wedding Singer."
As a director, Clooney doesn't have an original idea to speak of, but he knows how to swipe the best indie-approved moves, as in some spiffy camera pans that turn into unexpected transition shots. He really could be good at this -- if he learns to stop rewarding his friends with unnecessary vanity roles like Julia Roberts' guest appearance as a Mata Hari type. It's a bit of casting effected merely to exploit the notoriety of Being Julia Roberts. And just like her, it's as boring as all getout.