Especially when the subject the particular auto-bio is a TV game-show creator who claims a double life as a CIA assassin. Whether that claim is true or not, it's rich, quirky fodder for a movie as well as for a guy like Kaufman, who isn't above playing cat-and-mouse with the truth a little himself. "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" began life as a 1982 book by Chuck Barris, the man who'll be remembered for better or for worse as the weirdly spacey host of "The Gong Show," the surreal 1970s TV talent show in which hapless contestants competed for the honor of not being "gonged" off the stage. Often pointed to as the start of the downfall of TV entertainment if not civilization as we knew it back then elements of "The Gong Show" echo through the boob tube today. Just look at the number of viewers tuning in to "American Idol," especially for the pre-contest auditions.
Near the end of the movie, we briefly see the real Chuck Barris, wrinkled with age and worry, and identified simply as "Gong Show Host." It's a telling epitaph for a career that's widely varied, even if you omit the questionable CIA stuff. Everybody old enough to have watched television in the '70s knows Chuck Barris' name; few, however, know the man.
And after watching "Confessions," you still won't quite know. But you'll be so entertained that it won't really matter. For his first time behind the camera, Clooney shows a deft, flashy style. With admirable ease, he zooms us from truth to half-truth to probable-fantasy and back again, all the while keeping us engaged and more importantly, laughing.
"Confessions" plays out like a drug-induced version of "The Gong Show," with a parade of talented guests who each contribute a star turn. Clooney, who certainly doesn't need to worry about quitting his day job, exhibits an unexpected finesse behind the camera, considering "Confessions" is his maiden voyage. He handily keeps control of a film that easily could have spun off into incoherent chaos. And in the end, he manages to create a darkly funny, free-floating world that's often lyrically whimsical. This occurs most in the scenes with Barris' long-suffering girlfriend, Penny, portrayed to effervescent perky perfection by Drew Barrymore. At her best here, Barrymore gives Penny just the right sunny disposition, sounding always as if she's on the verge of bursting into uncontrolled delight.
Besides Barrymore (and cameos from the likes of Brad Pitt and Matt Damon), Julia Roberts shows up as a very focused femme fatale and fellow CIA operative, and even the silken-voiced Clooney has a major role as Barris' CIA handler. But it's Sam Rockwell who makes this surreal trip down memory lane work. Rockwell, who's usually a supporting player, disappears into the role. So dead-on is his imitation of Barris from the lazy bleary voice to those odd mannerisms (the hand-clapping, the pointing, the head-down dancing) that those who only vaguely remember Barris and "The Gong Show" when they enter the theater, will experience an almost instantaneous total recall.
"Confessions" is a smart, stylish and terrifically watchable movie, regardless of one's feelings about Barris, his game shows or his unverifiable claims of being a hit man for Uncle Sam. But for all of its entertaining ways, it feels a little empty at the end. Even Kaufman's abundant cleverness can't get us inside Barris' "dangerous mind" and can't quite get us to care about his fate.
Despite that, Clooney, Kaufman and Rockwell have crafted a nimble and nifty tale of an oddly talented but misunderstood outsider. By design, "Confessions" isn't meant to cough up answers to any questions. So those wondering if Barris' CIA story contains even a mote of truth, well wonder on. In a final, befitting meld of truth and illusion, a woman's voice croons the "unauthorized" anthem of artifice, "There's No Business Like Show Business," as the end credits roll. A second or two passes before it registers that the voice belongs to Clooney's Aunt Rosemary. It's the perfect final note for a movie that's all show and little substance. But, I confess, what a fine show it is, and I didn't miss the substance. **** S