Those of us just beginning to use drugs when we first saw The Gong Show in the 1970s had no problem getting a bead on its host, Chuck Barris: A bopping little man who never made eye contact and spasmodically pointed and scooped the air, he looked like daytime TV's first bong-head. But another explanation for that affect turns out to be shame. Unlike the blandly sniggering hosts of the other hit shows he created, The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game, Barris was manifestly uncomfortable as the front man for a program that exploited contestants' exhibitionism for fun and profit. He hadn't reckoned on becoming a part of his own freak show, and that air of druggy dissociation was the best way he could figure out to preserve his personal integrity.
Barris' autobiography, the basis for the new movie Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (Miramax), takes that druggy dissociation to hallucinatory levels. Half of it is a breezy, funny, often self-deprecating account of his career in television, which he entered in large part to get laid. The other half charts his shadow life as a CIA assassin. I don't know whether the CIA part is true or not (it seems about as likely as John Edward's ability to talk to those who've "crossed over"), but its inclusion in the book can be interpreted in several ways. The first is that Barris wants to be known for doing something more useful than creating humiliating game shows: killing people. The second is the inverse: He wants us to know that he could have done worse things than create humiliating game shows—he could have killed people. The third and most likely is that he couldn't get a handle on being forever known as the creator of The Gong Show and willed into life a much cooler alter ego.
The lively, likable, not-quite-satisfying new movie, directed by George Clooney from a script by Charlie Kaufman, seems to go with the last option: that Barris wasn't entirely at home with the life that made him rich and famous, that he wanted to believe he was capable of something more. The film begins with a bearded, long-haired Barris (Sam Rockwell) in the throes of an existential break: Having fled to a New York hotel room, he stares into the mirror and ruminates (in voice-over narration) on the issue of aspiration versus accomplishment. The movie that follows begins with a sober crawl to the effect that it has been compiled from official documents and eyewitness accounts of Barris' life—and there are interviews with Dick Clark, Jaye P. Morgan, and others to lend a faux verisimilitude. But no one's kidding anyone.
Half of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind has a breezy, biopic tone (with flashes of Annie Hall ), in which Barris rises in television and meets and takes up with Penny Pacino (Drew Barrymore), a flaky and uninhibited artist. The second half is a Cold War noir involving Barris, his CIA handler (George Clooney), and a Mata Hari beauty played by a darkly ravishing Julia Roberts. That second thread isn't played for camp, exactly, but the lighting and palette are stylized in ways that let you know that Clooney and Kaufman are putting you on, and it feels irrelevant, somehow. (It did in the book, too.) It doesn't have a Walter Mittyish connection to what's going on in Barris' life, and it doesn't have enough logic or momentum on its own to generate suspense.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind works best as a rollicking trip through the pop culture of the '60s and '70s. Rockwell has the perfect featherweight aplomb, and Barrymore is endlessly adorable, with a natural screwball presence. Kaufman devises countless funny and original ways to chart Barris' rise. (See, he can too adapt!) The scene in which the young producer (naked, peering into the refrigerator of a network gofer—Maggie Gyllenhaal—with whom he has just slept) meets Barrymore's Penny is an exquisite counterculture screwball duet. (Penny wants to make it with guys from all different ethnic backgrounds and hasn't yet had an "Ash-ken-atzy" Jew.) As a director, Clooney has a marvelously theatrical eye: He loves to track the actors back and forth in long, exuberant takes, and to layer the screen with multiple realities—life, noir, TV game show. The recreations of TheDating Game, The Newlywed Game ("proof," says Barris, "that any American would sell out their spouse for a washer-dryer or a lawnmower you can ride on"), and The Gong Show feel skin-crawlingly authentic. (Some of the footage is archival, with Rockwell seamlessly intercut.)
The movie doesn't jell, though. It builds to Barris' existential crisis; and if it's a hoot to see him throw a paranoid fit over the identity of the Unknown Comic (the guy who tells smutty jokes with a paper bag over his head), his mania doesn't seem rich or resonant enough. I suppose it's too much to expect Pirandellian stature from the madness of Chuck Barris—but that's about the only thing that would have made this mixed-up ego trip work. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind could have been the hipster's answer to A BeautifulMind (2001): mental illness as a game show where the winners get to find out who they really are.