Take a Bow, George Clooney: Who Knew You Could Direct?

George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind , from a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, based on the book by Chuck Barris, plays out as an amusing parody of A Beautiful Mind (2001). But whereas the delusional creatures of Russell Crowe’s schizophrenic John Nash are little short of terrifying in the vivid, lifelike performances of Ed Harris as an imaginary C.I.A. superior and Paul Bettany as an imaginary college roommate, the possibly equally imaginary C.I.A. spies dreamed up by Sam Rockwell’s Baron Munchausen-like Chuck Barris perform with an exaggerated theatricality that satirically undercuts their presumed reality. Indeed, George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Rutger Hauer chew up so much dark, snowy scenery here and abroad that the Cold Warriors they play seem to have been parachuted down from another, more noirish movie. So many things could have gone wrong with a conceit of this magnitude and audacity. But since they didn’t, Mr. Clooney, Mr. Kaufman and all their collaborators are entitled to take a deep bow for fashioning an engrossing entertainment out of an almost sure-fire prescription for a critical and commercial disaster.

At a time when television “reality shows” have plunged to new depths of bad taste and pathological sadism-at this point, only outright snuff spectacles still lurk farther down the anything-for-a-rating depravity scale-one feels almost nostalgic in revisiting such 60′s network-programming idiocies as Mr. Barris’ The Dating Game , The Newlywed Game and, for a percussive climax, the infamous Gong Show . The point is, how many times can America “lose its innocence”-with or without the assistance of schlock television?

The X-factor that renders Confessions of a Dangerous Mind more compelling than it would be if it took a more naïve view of America in the 60′s is Mr. Kaufman’s flair for developing in his screenplays the serio-comic potential of protagonists with damaged, though not clinically deranged, psyches. His alter ego(s) in Adaptation , played by Nicolas Cage, and even the absurdist John Cusack nonhero in Being John Malkovich (1999) are the predecessors for Mr. Rockwell’s Barris in Mr. Kaufman’s creative pressure cooker. In interviews with Mr. Barris, it’s been reported that the movie has gone beyond even the tall tales in the original “unauthorized autobiography,” but that the seemingly cynical “author” isn’t complaining, inasmuch as he himself has been shamelessly peddling the project for years.

For his part, Mr. Clooney has managed in his directorial debut to find a style that is light and lucid but never facetious, and intermittently emotional but never turgid. With the help of the resourceful Mr. Rockwell, he also has a central performance that never becomes boringly egocentric. Mr. Clooney even manages to avoid overmilking the deliciously funny cameo appearances by Brad Pitt and Matt Damon as rejected “dates” on Mr. Barris’ The Dating Game .

Mr. Barris himself makes a chilling appearance in the new millennium as the would-be “producer” of a quasi-suicidal game show with a couple of old geezers like himself, each with a fully loaded gun, to see which of the three pathetic panelists would be the first to blow his brains out. And sprinkled along the way are cinéma vérité -like interviews with real-life witnesses to this one-time celebrity’s strange life, such as Jim Lange, Gene (Gene, Gene the Dancing Machine) Patton, Jaye P. Morgan, Dick Clark and Murray Langston.

Drew Barrymore as Penny, the fruitlessly loyal wife and main squeeze, provides what little “heart and soul” there is in Mr. Barris’ lifelong loser’s zeal to “make out.” Her joyous ripostes with Mr. Rockwell lift the film’s spirits with more buoyancy than would normally be expected from the ever-downward trajectory of a life never fully realized or satisfied.

The nowadays-omnipresent Maggie Gyllenhaal, along with Kristen Wilson and Jennifer Hall, provide Mr. Rockwell’s befuddled Barris with a series of casual entanglements that leave no permanent scars of degradation and exploitation. These sardonic encounters mark the brief, painlessly hedonistic, pill-assisted period in American sexual history between the decline of syphilis and the onset of AIDS.

Even here, Mr. Clooney’s deft direction achieves a hilariously cartoonish irony by contrasting Mr. Barris’ thwarted high-school passes in fleapits-of-passion movie houses full of furiously necking couples, and his frantic catching-up period in adulthood, when he and his girlfriend are the only neckers in a theater full of people concentrating on the movie on the screen.

The producing credits for Confessions of a Dangerous Mind confirm an interesting trend in contemporary filmmaking-one that’s at variance with the hallowed Hollywood studio insistence on the craft specializations still celebrated by the annual Oscar ceremonies. An extreme example occurred in 1936, when producer Samuel Goldwyn fired director Howard Hawks for writing some dialogue into the script for Come and Get It , whereupon Goldwyn replaced Hawks with the presumably purer and more exclusively directorial William Wyler. These days, an arty director like Steven Soderbergh shares a producer credit with more habitual pure-producer types like Jonathan Gordon, Stephen Evans, and Bob and Harvey Weinstein of Miramax.

Indeed, this movie probably only came about because Mr. Clooney lent his considerable clout as a bankable star to the project, along with his ability to lure industry friends and “name” actresses like Julia Roberts and Drew Barrymore to the film.

This welcome feeling of industry-wide craft-crossing appreciation and cooperation has historically been more prevalent in France and Italy than in America, but it’s becoming more common over here, particularly in the more interesting projects. Hence, though no one ever accused Mr. Barris of having a beautiful mind, whatever mind that has emerged from his undeniably messy existence is the subject of a film with many beauties of its own.

Dysfunction Junction

After a brief sojourn with Gilbert and Sullivan in the unexpectedly joyous Topsy-Turvy (1999), realist-to-a-fault Mike Leigh returns to his familiar haunts close to the bottom of the heap in All or Nothing, from his own screenplay. I am willing to concede, unregenerate Aristotelian that I am, that Mr. Leigh is an extraordinary director of actors-perhaps too extraordinary. In All or Nothing , as a case in point, for close to two hours the audience is forced to endure three terminally depressed, mostly inarticulate, hyper dysfunctional families for the price of one.

Phil (Timothy Spall) drives a cab with a generally wide-eyed catatonic expression. His comparatively diminutive wife, Penny (Lesley Manville), works at a grocery checkout counter to help support the family, which, besides Phil, consists of a foul-mouthed, grotesquely obese adolescent named Rory (James Corden) and his equally obese but better-tempered sister Rachel (Alison Garland), who mops the floors in an old-age home. Rory doesn’t work at all-and, in fact, can barely move from the couch.

Their friendliest neighbors include a single mother, Maureen (Ruth Sheen), and her daughter, Donna (Helen Coker), who has just been made pregnant by a noisy, good-for-nothing boyfriend named Sid (Sam Kelly). Two hopeless drunks complete Penny and Phil’s circle: Carol (Marion Bailey) and Ron (Paul Jesson), whose weakness for alcohol disgusts their rude and sluttish daughter, Samantha (Sally Hawkins), whose only pleasure arises from her successful seduction of Sid.

Halfway through the film, there’s a moment of hope that something positive might happen. While the three wives are out boozing in a kind of karaoke bar, Maureen gets up and starts belting a song with a remarkably assured professionalism. As we wait eagerly for the thunderous applause that is sure to follow, Carol collapses noisily in a drunken heap on the floor, and Maureen has to stop her song to lend assistance. For me, that seemed like the last straw: set us up for a little lift, and then dash our hopes with a drunken pratfall.

Except that suddenly the mood brightens and lightens after Rory collapses from a heart attack, and the family members gather around his hospital bed and start babbling as they have never babbled before. In their euphoric state, Mr. Spall and Ms. Manville stage one of the most electrifying scenes of midlife marital reconciliation I have ever seen. Is it enough to make up for all the mannered misery that preceded it? I’m not sure, but Mr. Spall and Ms. Manville are terrific just the same.

Inspired French Noir

Jean-Pierre Melville was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach in Paris in 1917, the son of a wholesale merchant. He later celebrated his long love affair with America, its movies and even its outsized (at the time) Cadillacs by adopting the last name of the author of Moby-Dick . Melville died in 1973, while working on the script for his 14th feature film.

Le Cercle Rouge (1970), Melville’s next-to-last film, starring Alain Delon, Yves Montand, André Bourvil, Gian Maria Volonté and Francois Périer, was his biggest hit in France. For some reason best known to the gurus of international distribution, the film wasn’t released theatrically in the U.S. until the 1990′s, and then only in a dubbed, mutilated version 40 minutes shorter than the 140 minutes of the original. Now, at last, Rialto Pictures and the Film Forum (209 West Houston Street, 727-8110) are unveiling the complete, uncut version of Le Cercle Rouge for the first time in the U.S. from Jan. 10 through Jan. 23. Henri Decae’s(1915-1987)marvelously precise cinematography, inspiringly attuned to Melville’s tragic vision of the lives and deaths of the most stoical criminals in the noir genre, is alone worth the price of admission.

The big heist sequence in the middle of the film will evoke memories of John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Jules Dassin’s Du Rififi Chez les Hommes (1955), which was originally promised as a directorial assignment to Melville. His own film, however, is less sentimental than either of its predecessors, and is content to keep the action at a disengaged distance so as to emphasize the existence of a world that will pay little note, nor long remember, the crimes and punishments of interlocked predators on both sides of the law.

Two Immortals

I am grateful to my colleague Rex Reed for reminding us all two weeks ago, in his masterly annual obituary column, of all the gifted people in and out of our chosen field that breathe, create and perform no more. By a strange coincidence, I was idly channel-surfing after reading Mr. Reed’s column when I came upon Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dynamite (1972), which I had previously seen in a shortened version in the U.S. under the colloquially clumsy title Duck, You Sucker! Leone’s protagonists are played by the late James Coburn (1928-2002) and the late Rod Steiger (1925-2002). Coburn plays an I.R.A. fugitive who joins the Mexican Revolution and brings along Steiger’s cynically reluctant bandit for a final spiritual epiphany. The combination of Leone’s obsessive close-ups, Ennio Morricone’s melodious music, and the comradely chemistry of Coburn and Steiger ignite an emotional explosion comparable to that of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Leone’s supreme masterpiece. Though my vicariously saddened feeling was intensified by gazing at two of the all-too-mortal marchers in Mr. Reed’s passing parade, I was consoled somewhat by my being reminded of the cinema’s ghostly immortality in granting eternal life to its departed through their specters on the screen.