If one were listing the great moments in the history of Western civilization ' or the great moments in the history of television, which is as far back as most of us can remember ' "The Gong Show" probably wouldn't make the Top Ten. Nor would "The Dating Game" or "The Newlywed Game." But Chuck Barris, the creator of all three, may be the Leonardo da Vinci of what we now call reality entertainment, a true Renaissance man. Not only did Barris figure out that America wanted to see itself reflected in the television screen's throbbing pixels, he realized that we wanted to see ourselves at our worst ' choosing the wrong guy for a date, failing to remember the most obvious things about our spouses, singing a song in such a way that even dogs covered their ears. A lack-of-talent show, "The Gong Show" featured Barris himself ushering guests on and (especially) off the stage. Scratching his head and peering at the cue cards as if they contained the time and place of his next drug connection, Barris went after the lowest common denominator as if his life depended on it, which, apparently, it did.
Those of you who would like to know more about that life ' surely there's somebody out there ' may be severely disappointed by Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which engages us in a game of three-card monte that we're certain to lose. Based in part on Barris' "unauthorized autobiography," which was first published a couple of years after "The Gong Show" itself got gonged, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind purports to tell us the true Hollywood story of this amateur-hour TV mogul, but we don't get very far before realizing that someone's pulling our leg. In the book, Barris claimed to have worked for the CIA during the time he was working for ABC ' as an assassin, no less. And we think to ourselves: Hmm. A desperate plea for attention? An anxiety-displacement fantasy? (You want hits? I'll give you hits.) A postmod put-on Ã la Pynchon or DeLillo? All or none of the above? For the record, the CIA denies any involvement with Barris. Therefore, your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to figure out just how far Barris' tongue is embedded in his cheek.
The movie takes it all at face value. No, that's not right. The movie acts as if it's taking Barris' story at face value while winking at us from the sidelines. Directed by George Clooney and starring Sam Rockwell as Barris, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind plays like a fever dream, a hallucination brought on by the sheer dreck that people like Barris have injected into our veins. Most actors who try directing start in the baby pool ' Denzel Washington, for instance, who allowed Antwone Fisher to find its own look, its own pace. Not Clooney. Confessions, which is a promising debut, bears a striking resemblance to another first film, Citizen Kane. Both are flashback-driven biopics about famous men who don't seem to have a lot going on inside. And both do a jackknife off the high dive, cinematically speaking. Shot in lurid shades of TV-glow phosphorescence, Confessions changes its look from scene to scene, shot to shot. But somehow it works: Clooney and his cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel, keep us watching.
Watching, but not thinking all that much. The movie takes us through Barris' public and private lives, but neither of them adds up to much ' just one "hit" after another, followed by the inevitable crash. That's the problem with movies about ciphers: They tend to under- or over-explain. Witness Ed Wood, which didn't even try to understand what made Wood tick. Witness Man on the Moon, which took us behind a curtain that Andy Kaufman never even acknowledged. What's great about Citizen Kane is that it tries hard to explain Charles Foster Kane, then admits defeat. (A sled? You gotta be kidding me.) Clooney and scriptwriter Charlie Kaufman take the Ed Wood route with Barris, keeping us on the outside looking in. But he's just not that interesting a character. And all the CIA missions, which feature a lackluster Julia Roberts as Natasha to Rockwell's Boris, don't make him any more interesting. Rockwell's in the zone, nailing Barris' idiosyncratic mannerisms and suggesting hidden depths. But there are no hidden depths. Barris is as two-dimensional as a TV screen.
As Barris' on-again, off-again girlfriend, Drew Barrymore gives the movie some emotional heft, but we never see the Barris she seems to see ' a fun-loving guy who knows it's all a lark. It might have been better if Kaufman, who wrenched Adaptation from the jaws of defeat, had taken us back to the real Chuck Barris or, contrarily, taken the surreal one to a new level. As it is, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind doesn't seem like the confessions of a dangerous mind. It seems like the mock confessions of a man who used to say, over and over again, to "Gong Show" audiences, "We'll be right back with more...stuff."