A legend in his own mind

The double life of 'Gong Show's' Chuck Barris, who claims he was an assassin.

"Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" is in the news because it marks George Clooney's directing debut. Its most interesting angle, though, is the screenplay, written by Charlie Kaufman of "Adaptation" and "Being John Malkovich" fame.

Like all of Kaufman's pictures, "Confessions" delights in blurring boundaries between the real world we inhabit and the fantasy world that swirls across the screen.

This time the main character - whose book inspired the movie - is Chuck Barris, best known as the fast-talking host of "The Gong Show," the 1980s TV hit that drew uncountable fans while convincing uncountable skeptics that Western civilization had crashed and burned at last.

The movie is a time-traveling journey through Barris's purported past. He starts his adventures with an entry-level job in the TV business and starts to dream up pop-culture spectacles like "The Dating Game" and "The Newlywed Game," which are hard to sell at first but eventually reshape the contours of daytime television. The principle behind them is as unsavory as it is simple: People will endure vast humiliation if it gets them onto the tube, and other people will gawk with enough eagerness to make advertisers ecstatic and ratings dizzyingly high.

Then a mysterious stranger barges into his life - a CIA agent who says he'd make a dandy government hit man. Soon Barris is pumping bullets into enemies of the American way as easily as he pumps decadent entertainment into audiences back home.

Being a professional assassin isn't as easy as it looks, though. Barris faces unexpected threats, including an unknown double agent who may be out to get him. Even the regular grind of TV, murder, TV, murder gets more tricky to juggle than he'd hoped. He'd be sunk if someone found out chaperoning a set of "Dating Game" winners wasn't the primary purpose of his latest international jaunt.

"Confessions" presents itself as a standard Hollywood biopic, spicing up its subject but keeping a toe or two planted in reality. Don't let that fool you. Barris built his fortune on being an unrepentant hustler, and Kaufman is a trickster to his bones. With those names in the credits, it's a good idea to season your popcorn with more grains of salt than usual.

By the end, the only certain thing is that Clooney knows what directing is all about. He tells the tale energetically and imaginatively, blending fact and fantasy as seamlessly as Kaufman's screenplay does. His only major miscalculation is to take a jokey tone, as if the film's delirious twists might otherwise be too disturbing. The best scenes come at the beginning and end, when his style becomes as surrealistic as the story he's telling. An early scene at a TV studio - when a single shot takes us through different events on different days - is downright stunning.

Sam Rockwell is excellent as Barris, well supported by Clooney as the CIA operative, Drew Barrymore as our hero's mercurial girlfriend, and Julia Roberts as the beautiful spook who may be his nemesis.

It's a hard movie to sum up, but think "A Beautiful Mind" meets "The Dating Newlywed Gong Show Game" and you'll be on the right track.

Rated R; contains sex and violence.

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