Compiled in the cold light of day, the sum of Chuck Barris's contributions to American culture are the Top 40 ditty "Palisades Park" and his discovery that many people are willing to make complete fools of themselves in front of a TV camera. Barris's legacy as a network producer includes such pre-Jerry Springer, pre-Survivor humiliation fests as The Newlywed Game, The Gong Show, and The $1.98 Beauty Show. Give him credit for timely instinct: He transformed the public degradation of ordinary citizens into a pop phenomenon before anyone else.
Barris also fancies himself a writer, and among his three ill-composed books is the 1982 volume that's the basis for actor George Clooney's startlingly impressive debut as a movie director, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Barris claims that Confessions is a nonfiction memoir, while most people -- including, quite obviously, Clooney and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman -- regard it as sheer fantasy. The bone of contention is not slight. Along with being a self-proclaimed Casanova and a successful game show host, Barris would also have us believe he was once a trained CIA killer.
Anyone who thinks Barris is telling the truth probably has a good working relationship with the Easter Bunny. As for the present moviemakers, they have cleverly parlayed Barris's quaint fiction into a fascinating, frequently hilarious meditation on delusion, self-loathing, and personal salesmanship. While they're at it, they execute a deft burlesque on the lowbrow excesses of TV in the '70s.
As interpreted by Clooney and Kaufman, Barris is a hustler so committed to his con that he falls for it himself. Portrayed by Sam Rockwell, late of Welcome to Collinwood and Heist, Barris comes off as one of the creepiest movie characters in memory -- a pathological liar and crass opportunist who shoved his way into the television industry via his early gig as an NBC studio page, then trampled friends and foes alike en route to his fleeting fame and success.
But Barris's self-aggrandizing James Bond fantasies are the most bizarre thing here. With great skill and scary wit, Clooney, Kaufman, and Rockwell get inside Barris's disordered brain and give free rein to his imagined secret missions. Confessions comes off as a brilliant and unsettling comedy about one twisted dreamer's outrageous fantasies and the ways he tried to sell them to the world -- and to himself. On the surface, the film affects an air of ambiguity about Barris's spy-assassin claims, but in the end we know exactly where it stands.