Sometimes a director's first film is the most interesting. Not best, mind you, but most packed with ideas and jammed with technique. At that point in their career, they figure this might be their only chance to be in control of an actual, no-kidding movie, so they toss in everything.

Look at Orson Welles' 'Citizen Kane.' Or Alex Cox's 'Repo Man.' Or, if more recently, look at 'Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,' the first movie where George Clooney stepped behind the camera.

Released to so-so reviews and largely empty theaters back in 2002, 'Confessions' is a million miles from later, more subdued Clooney efforts like 'Good Night, and Good Luck,' 'The Ides of March' and this year's 'Monuments Men.'

In 'Confessions,' Clooney showed the influence of his more experienced director buddies the Coen Brothers and Steven Soderbergh by filming the entire story in a hallucinatory, borderline surreal recreation of '60s and '70s TV, saturating the colors and using moving sets and camera tricks to create strange, dark visions without relying on elaborate computer effects.

Clooney, whose dad worked in television decades ago, manages to recreate the spirit of live TV while keeping things distinctly off-kilter.

And 'Confessions of a Dangerous Mind' is definitely an off-kilter tale. It's based on game-show producer Chuck Barris' self-proclaimed "unauthorized autobiography," which claims that, in addition to creating 'The Dating Game' and 'The Gong Show,' he was also a hired assassin, paid and trained by the CIA. It's silly, sure, but pretty dark too -- and Sam Rockwell brings both the silliness and darkness to the role.

In a movie this crazy, with so many jokes, references, camera tricks and bits of business crammed into every corner, a movie like this needs an anchor.

Rockwell, one of the best actors working today, somehow manages to give 'Confessions' a solid emotional center. He gets strong support from Clooney (as Barris' on-the-skids CIA handler), Drew Barrymore, Rutger Hauer, Michael Cera (as the boy Barris) and even a much-better-than-usual Julia Roberts.

Being Clooney's first movie, 'Confessions' tosses in everything, then tosses in some more. Quirky scene changes, flashbacks, flashforwards, actual commentary from 'Gong Show' regulars (including Gene Gene the Dancing Machine, now missing the bottom half of both legs) and even the infamous 'Newlywed Game' clip where the woman reveals the most unusual place she and her husband ever "made whoopee."

If it has any relation, no matter how tangential, to the story, it's in here -- and it's probably filmed in some oddball manner. It gets a little exhausting at the end of two hours,  but the overstuffed style fits the overstuffed subject matter perfectly.

Plus, as I said, it's dark. Really dark. All those CIA murders are mostly played for laughs, but Chuck himself comes across as a tragic figure, a man forced into a lifetime of no-win situations, looking wistfully to death as the only way out.

Many of the main characters are dead by the end credits, and the last thing we see in the film is black-and-white footage of the actual Chuck Barris, describing his idea for a game show where the contestants are dared to kill themselves. Not your average Hollywood ending, but just the way a first-time, go-for-broke director would decide to bring things to a fittingly grim finish.

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