February 03, 2003 12:00 PM

Featured attraction

Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore, George Clooney, Julia Roberts

George Clooney clearly was paying attention while working as an actor for such notable filmmakers as Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s Eleven) and brothers Ethan and Joel Coen (O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Going behind the camera himself for the first time as the director of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Clooney reflects their influence. Like them he tackles quirky subject matter with assurance and stylistic pizzazz.

Mind is based on a 1984 memoir by TV producer Chuck Barris, who dubiously claimed that even as he was churning out moronic but wildly popular shows such as The Newlywed Game, The Dating Game and The Gong Show in the swinging 1960s and ’70s, he was doing double duty as an international hit man for the CIA. Why the need to embellish his accomplishments so wildly? For Barris, the film suggests, the TV success was never enough. He craved love and respect, something the clanging Gong Show, a precursor of American Idol but intentionally featuring talentless contestants, was never going to bring.

Rockwell (Charlie’s Angels) gives a marvelous performance, getting Barris in every sense of the word. Playing a shadowy CIA recruiter, Clooney is all silky menace. Barrymore is too chirpily one-note as Barris’s longtime girlfriend, while Roberts is sexy fun as a mysterious fellow assassin. Bonus: Brad Pitt and Matt Damon turn up for a jolly cameo as losing bachelors on The Dating Game. (R)

BOTTOM LINE: By George, a promising debut

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