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CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND

Killer TV

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About an hour before I watched Confessions of a Dangerous Mind -- the story of Gong Show creator/host Chuck Barris, and his claim that he killed 33 people as a CIA assassin -- I stumbled upon a heart-warming episode of Jerry Springer. It involved a semi-toothless cracker named Lincoln, who admitted, on national TV (as they say), that he's been having sex for a year with his wife's ex-husband, and who spent the first 10 minutes of the show dropping his pants and trying to hump Jerry's burly body guard.

And I thought to myself: The Gong Show, The Newlywed Game, The Dating Game, CIA killer -- hell, this Barris fellow was an amateur.

With shows like has-been celebrity boxing and Who on Earth Wants To Marry a Standup Comedian Claiming To Be a Millionaire?, TV has raised the bar on lowering the bar way beyond Barris' gifts to American history and culture. But Barris certainly did his share: In his "unauthorized autobiography," he claims that he kept killing on behalf of the CIA into the 1970s, long after networks began to air his hit game shows.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is the first film directed by the actor George Clooney, a crafty fellow who tartly chides the celebrity press for caring so much about where and with whom he and his colleagues sleep. He's right, of course: As Dennis Miller puts it, "I couldn't care less about other people's orgasms." So Barris' book, a parody-cum-vivisection of reality TV and tabloid journalism, seems a natural fit for Clooney, who cast himself as Barris' taciturn CIA mentor.

Although the Barris (Sam Rockwell) of Confessions is largely in love and living with Penny (Drew Barrymore), he finds plenty of time for infidelity, most notably with a willowy CIA contact (Julia Roberts) who changes hair colors as often as Roberts herself changes fiancés. Eventually this fictional Barris (and the real one, history tells) comes to loathe himself for creating and perpetuating idiotic entertainment, although not to the degree that he, oh, gives his money away and becomes a Buddhist.

At first Clooney and his screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich), bounce blithely through Barris' early life as a charming womanizer and triumphant show-biz mountebank. This all happens in America's free-love '60s, when the lusty Barris apparently subscribed to Gore Vidal's belief that one should never pass up the opportunity to have sex or be on television: He could take a cultural pulse while simultaneously performing the butterfly flick. (Confessions is playfully sexy -- without, alas, getting smutty.) His shows were faux psychedelica and eventually ultra-kitsch, with big wet kisses for everyone, and double entendres that tested the boundaries of pre-Springer TV.

Confessions uses historic footage only a few times, mostly to avoid the waste of hiring Jamie Farr or Arte Johnson look-alikes. Clooney also treats us to the unexpurgated version of the most titillating game-show moment ever: Asked the most unusual place she's ever made whoopee, a befuddled contestant on The Newlywed Game answers with a guilty giggle, "In the ass." Clooney's spy stuff is amusing at first, especially when Barris chaperones winning couples on exotic European dates and takes time out to assassinate someone. His Ocean's 11 pals, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, sit in for silent cameos as Dating Game contestants who lose to a chatterbox dork.

But the spookery gets tiresome about mid-picture, and at the end, Clooney takes it too seriously as a far-fetched metaphor for Barris' fractured psyche and diminishing self-esteem. It's not half as fun as Clooney thinks it is, and it tumbles quickly into a melancholy overindulgence of Barris' mendacious autobiography.

Confessions is often made much easier to watch by Rockwell, a comfortable actor who's kicked around the movies for more than a decade (see Box of Moonlight especially). When he imitates Barris hosting The Gong Show, his floppy flamboyance is dead-on perfect. The rest of the time he's more subtle and even poignant when Kaufman's busy script allows it. He's a charming and often frisky actor, and his furry eyebrows, lean face and unpretentious overbite carry the faint whiff of chipmunk, although Clooney seems to be positively fixated on Rockwell's naked bubble butt.

For all Confessions wants to say about our culture of 15-minute fame -- a reference the movie does not use, thank goodness -- its simplest observations work best. "I should have known," Barris says, "there were millions of Americans willing to get on TV and make asses out of themselves." And later, to buffer this brittle cynicism with disquieting pathos: "The insane all have delusions of being famous people, not the guy down the block."

As a director, Clooney falls into the first-timer trap of making sure everything looks just right. His visual styles range from fading black-and-white to garish Technicolor to the steely industrial blue that's come to represent our collective cultural depression. (Steven Soderbergh, who co-produced the movie, favors this look.) He includes a few unobtrusive passages of docu-style interviews with Dick Clark, Jim Lange, Jaye P. Morgan and others, and over his closing titles, his late aunt, Rosemary Clooney, sings "There's No Business Like Show Business." It's both a loving tribute and an obvious choice, although with so much phoniness in entertainment these days, one should never, ever pass up a chance to hear Rosie sing. * * 1/2

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