Compiled in the cold light of day, the sum of Chuck Barris' contributions to American culture are the Top 40 ditty "Palisades Park," which he wrote in 1962, and his discovery, a few years later, that many people are willing to make complete fools of themselves in front of a TV camera. Barris' legacy as a network producer includes such pre-Jerry Springer, pre-Survivor humiliation-fests as The Newlywed Game, The Gong Show and The $1.98 Beauty Show. Give him credit for timely instinct: He transformed the public degradation of ordinary citizens into a pop phenomenon before anyone else thought of it.
Barris also fancies himself a writer, and among his three ill-composed books is the 1982 volume that's the basis for actor George Clooney's startlingly impressive debut as a movie director, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. As you may know by now, Barris claims that Confessions is a nonfiction memoir, although most people -- including, quite obviously, Clooney and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman -- regard it as sheer fantasy. The bone of contention is not slight. Along with being a self-proclaimed Casanova and a successful game-show host, Barris would also have us believe he was once a trained CIA killer who, in his spare time, assassinated enemy operatives in international spots.
Anyone who thinks Barris, now retired and living in New York, is telling the truth probably has a good working relationship with the Easter bunny and believes that the black-clad secret agent in A Beautiful Mind is real, too. As for the moviemakers, they have cleverly parlayed Barris' quaint fiction into a fascinating, frequently hilarious meditation on delusion, self-loathing and personal salesmanship. While they're at it, they execute a deft burlesque on the lowbrow excesses of TV in the '70s, of which Barris was clearly the personification.
As interpreted by Clooney and Kaufman (whose postmodern bona fides as a screenwriter include the surreal mind trip Being John Malkovich and the new comic metafiction Adaptation), Barris is a hustler so committed to his con that he falls for it himself. Credited as a "consultant" to the production, the faded TV star stuck around the set and eagerly answered the filmmakers' questions. Does he have any idea how they've blindsided him? If so, does he care? As press agents used to say, all publicity is good publicity.
In any event, the guy probably gets what's coming to him. Portrayed by Sam Rockwell, late of Welcome to Collinwood and Heist, Barris comes off as one of the creepiest movie characters in memory -- a pathological liar and crass opportunist who shoved his way into the television industry by way of his early gig as an NBC studio page, then trampled friends and foes alike en route to his fleeting fame and success. Appropriately, The Dating Game boils up from his cheap skirt-chasing fantasies, The Gong Show (on which incompetent show-biz dreamers were booed off the set) from his own deep self-hatred. "I would be a millionaire," this unsympathetic worm imagines. "Everyone would love me."
Apparently it's open season on low-rent TV personalities. Paul Schrader's recent Auto Focus exposed the slimy sex life of old Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane, and before Clooney took his shot at eternal teenager Dick Clark, who comes off as a fool in an on-camera interview in Confessions, schlumpy muckraker Michael Moore briefly had at him in Bowling For Columbine. But no one's quite as pathetic or self-absorbed as Rockwell's Barris. Early on, he picks bar fights with bigger guys. For decades, he betrays his stupidly loyal girlfriend, Penny (a wonderfully dizzy Drew Barrymore). Always he looks to exploit.
But Barris' self-aggrandizing James Bond fantasies (cooked up in a seedy New York hotel room after his TV career crashed) are the most bizarre thing here. With great skill and scary wit, Clooney, Kaufman and Rockwell get inside Barris' disordered brain and give free rein to his imagined secret missions. Under the tutelage of a CIA recruiter named Jim (Clooney himself), Barris kills a mustachioed bigwig in the shimmering heat of Mexico City, offs a dangerous commie in snowy Helsinki and puts his head together with a philosophical secret agent (Rutger Hauer) in Cold War Berlin. Of course, these pulp fantasies are also heated up with poontang. Wearing a series of foreign-intrigue wigs, a luscious Julia Roberts slinks through the international shadows as the mysterious femme fatale Patricia, a sister agent who quotes Nabokov from memory, speaks four or five languages and, quite naturally, has the hots for our boy.
In the course of these fervid fictions, Clooney indulges cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel in a lot of tricked-up effects -- the infrared this, the desaturated-color that -- meant to signal distorted states of mind and heightened paranoia levels. Sharp acting does the job just as well. Yet despite the excesses, Confessions comes off as a brilliant and unsettling comedy about one twisted dreamer's outrageous fantasies and the ways he tried to sell them to the world -- and to himself. On the surface, the film affects an air of ambiguity about Barris's spy/assassin claims, but in the end we know where exactly it stands.
It's even easier to see where Barris' head is. Always attuned to his next opportunity, the old fantasist has another book in the works, scheduled for publication next year. The title? Bad Grass Never Dies: More Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. It's a good bet the old hustler's already counting the take.