This film is excellent. Go see it. The review below contains spoilers.
The two films that Charlie Kaufman wrote for Spike Jonze to direct were filled with funhouse mirrors, toying with the audience's idea of the "reality" behind the illusory world of Hollywood: "John Malkovich" played by John Malkovich (though he lives in France, not New York City) and "Charlie Kaufman" as a hero (though he's not fat, balding, or a twin). The story of this film contains almost* no such winking through the fourth wall; no reference to how unlikely its premise is, and certainly no pretense of giving you "the real story". The idea of a game show host with a secret life as an international spy assassin is not played for laughs (though plenty of darkly hilarious situations spring up along the way), but instead wrung for surprising extremes of suspense and pain.
*The first image in the film is Dick Clark, awash in so much white light he's little more than a smear, being interviewed about Chuck Barris. As the film progresses, several other celebrities who knew the actual Barris chime in with whether or not he could have had such an infamous secret career. No one is especially committal. And of course, their words might be scripted anyway.
In Charlie's Angels, delightful sparks flew between Drew Barrymore as the nation's cutest kung fu killer for hire and Sam Rockwell as a shy nerdy millionaire in danger. When Plot Twist time came and Rockwell was revealed to be a cold-blooded thug out to murder Barrymore and her boss, her woundedness festered into rage. I credit Rockwell's chameleonic double performance and Barrymore's childlike vulnerability for making this shift so effective, but in Confessions, these two actors are challenged much further: to recreate their chemistry through pleasure and trouble without the easy outlet of cartoon histrionics.
The film opens in a hotel room in Manhattan in 1981. Barris (Rockwell) stands naked in the center of the room, unshaven for months, watching television like a zombie. Penny (Barrymore) pleads through the door with him to come out and marry her, having tracked him down all the way from L.A. He can't. She leaves in tears. When we return to this scene at the end of the film, we'll know why he stays in hiding: he fears for his life.
So the body of Barris' life unfolds in flashback: We see a bit of his unhappy childhood and then his teen life as a dateless wonder in the late 40's. (These scenes are given the patina of faded photographs due, I believe, to the same digital grading process used on O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Fellowship of the Ring.) Soon enough he works his way through a series of chump jobs at NBC and composes the pop song Palisades Park, about finding love at a New Jersey fairground, which winds up a hit on American Bandstand in 1962.
When Barris meets Penny after screwing her bored roommate (Maggie Gyllenhaal, who played the older sister in Donnie Darko), again he's naked, with a door between them, only this time it's the refrigerator door. "We can ball if you want!" Barrymore suggests brightly, since she's never had Ashkenazim. As the two float agelessly through the next two decades, "free love" will go out of vogue for her, but Barris' voracious sexual appetite will remain.
As Barris develops the pilot for The Dating Game, his own idea, he is recruited by the mysterious CIA agent Jim Byrd (George Clooney, who as always projects Authority without seeming uncool -- I'd follow the man off a cliff) to become an assassin. Barris is as confused as the audience why a nebbishy television producer would qualify for that line of work, but Clooney has his (secret) reasons. After a training camp in the frozen north where Barris learns the messy basics of murder (and obtains the idea for The Newlywed Game from electrode torture), he goes on his first paid assignment in Mexico City, where the sun's bleaching recalls the Spanish language portions of Traffic.
Clooney has the idea of offering international trips as Dating Game prizes, which Barris, as a "chaperone", can use to eliminate the enemies of America. "You've won a vacation in fabulous...West Berlin!!!" Despite the involvement of Patricia (played by Julia Roberts as a Bond girl with much more intelligence), Barris' contact on many missions, the Berlin job goes poorly, and Barris wants out of the spy game, as he certainly no longer needs the money. Unfortunately Uncle Sam is not so forgiving.
When a horrific casting call gives Barris the idea for The Gong Show (to televise bad acts because they're bad), he makes himself the host in the hopes that his famous face will diminish his effectiveness as a covert operative. Paranoia begins to suffocate him, and as the film draws to a close, he attempts to settle affairs with all three of the key figures in his life. Before leaving that Manhattan hotel room, he pens his autobiography as an insurance policy: Killing him now would be tantamount to publicly divulging that his incredible tale was true.
How is Clooney as a director? Thoroughly adept and imaginative, and I hope he makes another film soon. Clearly, he's learned a lot from his past collaborators including Steven Soderbergh, David O. Russell and the Coen brothers. The film can flip from wittily silly to gruesomely unsettling in the space of a moment, and is never less than tight and entertaining. Actors who direct too frequently sacrifice plot for monologues (see Albino Alligator and Trees Lounge) but Clooney keeps the whole enterprise rolling with a terrific sense of momentum, unafraid to delegate huge stars to minor roles or stage tense emotional scenes in silhouette. Newton Thomas Sigel's cinematography brings his lush, moody darkness from Bryan Singer's films (The Usual Suspects, X-Men) though Clooney probably met him during his boldly grainy work on Three Kings. I can't help but feel this fine flick got unfairly ignored in the holiday rush (not to mention mismarketed), so give it some love before it's gone.