Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

Many actors have turned into directors, but few have had such auspicious first outings as George Clooney does with “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” the loopy, absurdly entertaining biography of “Gong Show” creator Chuck Barris.

The story — which is based on Barris’ “unauthorized autobiography” and which contains several straight-faced elements of fiction — lends itself naturally to absurdity; having a screenplay adaptation by Charlie Kaufman (“Adaptation,” “Being John Malkovich”) certainly helps matters. But who knew Clooney had such a mischievous, inventive streak in him?

Ah, but we did. His off-kilter performance in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000), his participation in the “South Park” movie (1999), his wry work in “Out of Sight” (1998) and “Three Kings” (1999) — Clooney has given us glimpses of his impish side all along. It stands to reason his first trip behind the camera would yield such giddy results.

This is the story of an unlikely character named Chuck Barris (played by Sam Rockwell), a Philadelphia boy whose over-active sex drive led to rage and fistfights, and eventually to more trouble than that. Barris found his way into television, ultimately convincing network executives that his idea for a game show called “The Dating Game” would be a hit. He followed it with “The Newlywed Game” and the no-talent cavalcade “The Gong Show,” the latter of which he hosted and which was decried at the time as being the low point in the history of television. (In the 1970s, the Fox network didn’t exist, so low points were not nearly as low as they are now.)

In the midst of all this, Barris claims in his memoir, he was hired by the CIA as an assassin. His contact in the film is a mysterious figure named Jim Byrd (Clooney), one Patricia Wilson (Julia Roberts) his femme fatale. Whether the CIA stuff is true or not, the film doesn’t care. It’s in the book, and it makes the story a little zanier, so it stays.

Sam Rockwell’s performance as Barris is splendid, perfectly capturing the man’s idiosyncrasies and mannerisms. To the extent that the film allows it (which is not much), he also conveys Barris’ fears and self-doubts, his uncertainty whether any of it — the CIA, the game shows, anything — makes sense. Rockwell has always been a reliable supporting actor; here he is given the opportunity to shine, and he takes the leading role with precise, comical gusto.

And who better to play Barris’ free-spirited hippie girlfriend than Drew Barrymore? Enough said about that.

Clooney’s directorial style is whimsical in the best sense of the word, never being content to let something just appear on the screen if there’s a more interesting way of showing it. Characters pop into shots out of nowhere, and a moving camera often catches as many well-timed entrances and exits as it does lines of dialogue. Kudos also to the cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel (“Three Kings,” “The Usual Suspects”), who uses over-saturated color to mimic the time periods, giving much of the film a surreal quality that is perfectly appropriate.

The CIA material, surprisingly, is not nearly as interesting as Barris’ experiences in television. Perhaps it’s because we can rely on most of those stories, while the hired-assassin business seems fishy and therefore worthy of less attention. Whatever the reason, the film loses some of its steam when it turns to the hitman scenes. When it focuses on the madness of television, though, it runs on all cylinders, churning out a succession of giggly sequences that make for an entertaining film, if not exactly an insightful one.

B+ (1 hr., 50 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, some nudity, strong sexuality, some violence.)