The young actor sam Rockwell is handsome in a rumpled, slightly goofy rabbit-toothed way, but he doesn’t really have the look, or aura, of a movie star. He’s more like a weirdly sincere space cadet, babbling to himself with puppyish befuddlement, breaking into funky soft dance moves — as he did in the single best moment of ”Charlie’s Angels” — that look as if he’s been doing them in his bedroom since he was 8. All of which makes him an inspired choice to play Chuck Barris, the rumpled, slightly goofy rabbit-toothed game-show mogul who created ”The Dating Game” and ”The Newlywed Game” and then, in the 1970s, became famous, if not infamous, when he emerged to act as the frowsy MC of his tackiest concoction of all, ”The Gong Show.”
But wait a minute. Did you also know that Chuck Barris, the entire time that he was dumbing down the American airwaves, was a hitman for the CIA? That he used his role as a ”Dating Game” chaperone as a cover for committing freelance assassinations in places like ”fabulous Helsinki” and East Berlin? If you believe this, I have some Florida real estate you might be interested in, but the fascination of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the sharp, funny, unreasonably compelling adaptation of Barris’ autobiography, is the way it soft-shoes past our skepticism. Directed by George Clooney, in a nimble behind-the-camera debut, from a script by Charlie Kaufman (”Adaptation”), the film takes Barris’ absurd claim of a double life in TV trash and CIA espionage and treats it not as the PR gambit of a desperate has-been but as a story so strange, so singular, so beyond the pale of what even a huckster like Chuck Barris would dare to make up that it could, maybe, just possibly, be true.
Much of ”Confessions” plays as an ironic pop biopic whose subject is trivially off-center enough to make Ed Wood or Bob Crane look like Gandhi. Told in flashback from the point of view of the washed-up Barris, the movie presents him as a jovial opportunist who had just enough vision to tap into the sexed-out counterculture with his peekaboo game-show concepts. Clooney and Kaufman stage Barris’ television antics with the enthusiasm of true cheese wizards (”The Gong Show” was nothing if not a forerunner of reality TV), and Rockwell works up a disarming sympathy for this disheveled Jewish hustler as he fights his outsider status and finds love with the daffy, loyal Penny (Drew Barrymore, at her sweetie-pie best). At the same time, Barris is drawn into the spy game by a suave CIA recruiter (played by Clooney). He gets sent on missions, complete with silent-gun killings and a murky tryst with a fellow agent (Julia Roberts).
What, exactly, are we to make of this? ”Confessions” takes the view that Barris was a flyweight sociopath who could create tawdry hit game shows and kill in the next breath because he lacked an allegiance to decency. That’s a glib, amusing, ultimately rather meaningless idea, but the film flogs it with such poker-faced conviction that, for the two hours you’re sitting there, it’s surprising fun to consider. Then the lights go up, and you realize that, like Barris’ TV shows, what you’ve been watching isn’t reality at all but, rather, an irresistible sham.