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Hit man 

Confessions makes a bad dream of Barris bio

Game show creator Chuck Barris may be the illegitimate father of television as we know it. "The Dating Game" spawned imitations like "Elimidate" and helped popularize the term "bachelorette." "The Gong Show," with its spotlight-seeking contestants and cruel celebrity hosts, was "American Idol" without the slick veneer. And Barris' exploitation of ordinary people eager to embarrass themselves paved the way for Jerry Springer and his ilk.

The feverish biopic Confessions of a Dangerous Mind asserts that Barris is even worse than we think. Based on his "unauthorized autobiography," the film would have us believe that, while lowering standards for taste on the airwaves, Barris murdered 33 people as an assassin for the CIA. Matinee idol and first-time director George Clooney delivers a strange, unsatisfying pop hybrid that blends cloak-and-dagger espionage with behind-the-scenes TV satire.

From the 1950s to the '80s, Barris (Sam Rockwell) is portrayed as a perennial hustler, although initially he has better luck getting into the skirts of young women than getting into the television business. In the first of Rockwell's innumerable buffalo shots, he meets future girlfriend Penny (Drew Barrymore) the morning after sleeping with her roommate, and she's unfazed that he's in the nude, covered only by the door of an open refrigerator.

Unable to sell his pitch for "The Dating Game," Barris is approached by an international man of mystery (George Clooney behind a walrus mustache) trying to recruit him as a CIA operative. Barris initially rejects the offer -- the only "hits" he wants to be in on are hit programs -- but the money involved changes his mind. He's sickened by his first murder, but Barris' fortunes improve after every government-sanctioned killing.

Barris chaperones "Dating Game" winners in European cities, then tracks down and snuffs out his targets. He cheats on Penny with a glamorous Mata Hari (Julia Roberts, enjoying herself), yet despite his wealth and fame, he buckles under the pressure of leading a double life and getting scathing reviews for "The Gong Show."

Confessions includes interviews with Barris contemporaries like Dick Clark and "Gong Show" regular the Unknown Comic, although they don't actually support his cock-and-bull CIA story. (No, I can't prove it didn't happen -- but come on.) Confessions makes the most sense when you note that it was adapted by Charlie Kaufman, who penned the other meditations on fame, creativity and identity, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.

Kaufman's script suggests that it's perfectly consistent that Barris would have no regard for human life. He shows no respect for the love of Penny, the institution of marriage (mocked in "The Newlywed Game") or the dignity of his contestants, so killing people is the next logical step, although he seeks to redeem himself in the last act.

But where Kaufman's other scripts benefit from the restrained, deadpan approach of director Spike Jonze, Clooney goes for a hallucinatory quality. Decades pass, yet Rockwell scarcely ages and Barrymore not at all. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (who shot Clooney in Three Kings) fills his frames with memorable colors and camera angles, from washed-out European winters to Pop art TV sound-stages.

Confessions conspicuously lacks a sense of joy. Perhaps Clooney, who spent years struggling as a TV actor, has hard feelings toward the medium that established him. The film's few light moments take place on "The Dating Game's" set, which include some raunchy banter and surprise cameos from some of Clooney's Ocean's 11 co-stars. Amusingly, Barris' defining moment may be when a bathing beauty at the Playboy mansion grotto says he personifies everything that's wrong with America.

Otherwise, Confessions simply isn't much fun, setting a tone of nightmarish drama instead of bizarre comedy. Though Rockwell captures the man's ambitions and ambivalence, Clooney ultimately utterly misses the huckster showmanship and the genuine love of bad jokes that gave Barris his former appeal. It's as if Confessions of a Dangerous Mind tried to make an expose of "The Gong Show's" Unknown Comic, but never saw beneath his brown paper bag.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

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