Chuck Barris: game show producer and Gong Show host by day, C.I.A. hitman by night. My God, it all makes perfect sense. The Gong Show, as hosted by Chuck Barris, was mesmerizing TV. The talent show brought a bizarre parade of deluded would-be entertainers, comics getting screen time by doing freaky shtick and, occasionally, real talent. They performed under the watchful eyes of three B-list celebrity judges, who, if they deemed the act bad enough, would bang a mighty gong and bring the performance to an end.
The acts, however, were just an excuse for a daily party, hosted by the one, the only Chuck Barris. He moved like a herky-jerky wind-up toy, drawing attention to himself while trying to hide from his audience by obscuring his eyes with hats and pulling up his collar over his mouth - an introvert with a lampshade on his head. He scurried about, fussing over technical business or consoling just-gonged contestants while mumbling hilarious things under his breath, like Popeye does in cartoons from the early days. He chided celebrity judge Jaye P. Morgan (what exactly was she famous for?) about her chronic dirty talk (she eventually got bounced from the show by the network after baring her breasts to the audience one time too many). He suffered insults from the Unknown Comic (Murray Langston, doing naughty one-liners while wearing a bag over his head). And if we were lucky, he cupped his hand to his ear, picking up some mysterious signal indicating the pending arrival of - oh, I can hardly believe it - Gene, Gene, the Dancing Machine! Ecstatic, Barris would reel back as Gene Patton, a genial stagehand roped into action one day when the show ran out of acts, took center stage, shuffling about in the most curious manner while wearing a broad grin. Confetti dropped from above as Gene did his little dance. Meanwhile, Barris jitterbugged frenetically on one side of the stage and the judges joined in on the other. It was always the highlight of the show. Pure silliness, and yet, something more. There was a wonderful sense of defiance to the spectacle, as if Barris and his camp had gazed into the gaping maw and decided that, instead of despairing, they would move right up to the edge and dance, dance, dance! Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the directorial debut of George Clooney, is based on an "unauthorized" autobiography of the same name by Barris, in which he reveals that, while creating and producing such then revolutionary fare as The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game, he was also serving the government as a C.I.A. operative. Truth, or just a fanciful idea to spice up the book? Barris, doing interviews for the first time in years, stands by his story, although he prefers not to talk about it. He acknowledges telling Connie Chung, in an interview about 10 years ago, that the spy stuff was false, but adds, "That"s what they told me to say to her." The C.I.A., following their standard policy, will neither confirm nor deny any questions concerning the identities of their agents. Clooney, working from a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) that takes the story at face value, has crafted a solid, entertaining portrait of a fascinating guy. As in the book, Barris comes off as a man desperate to leave his mark and fearful it will merely be a splotch. He dreams of making a glorious dive off the high board, but cannot get out of the shallow end of the pool. His hit pop song, "Palisades Park," is dismissed as fluff. His TV creations are called trash by his detractors and viewed as mere innovative trifles by his champions. Finally, he gets his opportunity for greatness, taking care of C.I.A. business undercover while serving as chaperone to Dating Game winners as they travel to exotic locales. But his exploits must remain secret, and what happens when he wants out? Sam Rockwell (Galaxy Quest) is fabulous as Barris, capturing the essence of the man without doing an impression. Drew Barrymore offers able support as Penny, a sprite from the counterculture. On the spy side, Clooney hops in as Jim Byrd, the agent that recruits Barris, and Julia Roberts keeps her tongue in cheek as femme fatale Patricia. While I would have preferred more behind-the-scenes TV vignettes and less top secret derring-do, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind remains one of the better films of 2002. As with The Gong Show, it manages to play as both high concept fluff and something more subversive and defiant.