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Debut shows a deft touch

First-time director George Clooney spins gold from a TV producer's story

If you're one of our younger readers, a member of Y or Q or some similarly lettered generation, maybe you've never heard of Chuck Barris. That would be a shame because if it weren't for Chuck Barris, you wouldn't be enjoying much of today's more elevated television entertainment, such as 'Fear Factor' and 'Jackass' and 'Joe Millionaire.'

Barris created the groundbreaking TV game shows 'The Dating Game' and 'The Newlywed Game,' as well as a truly surreal bad-talent carnival called 'The Gong Show.' This was in the 1970s, when the American public discovered its almost unlimited appetite for bread and circuses. Barris was ringmaster of some of the most garish circus acts on television.

In his memoir, 'Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,' Barris contends that he also was recruited by the CIA as an assassin. It made for a clever, unusual read Ñ a game show producer who was involved with spying on civil rights groups and trained as a government killer.

It was especially entertaining because Barris himself makes for such an unlikely spy.

As written by oddball screenwriter Charlie Kaufman ('Adaptation,' 'Being John Malkovich'), the film based on Barris' book appears to take the CIA yarn at face value. George Clooney, in his first directorial effort, then presents this utterly ridiculous shaggy dog story as one of the most creative, energetic and original comedies to hit the screen in years.

Collaborating with his partner-mentor, Steven Soderbergh, and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, Clooney begs, borrows and/or steals pretty much every cinematic trick in the book, from bizarre scene changes to heavily artistic process shots.

The result is a film that's much more challenging than you'd expect from a first-time director and an engagingly light take on some very dark material.

As Barris, Sam Rockwell gives a career-making performance, capturing not only the man's public persona (the re-creations of Barris' 'Gong Show' moments are eerily precise) but also presenting an even more unhinged private personality.

It's the sort of showcase that propels actors like Rockwell Ñ who's been in a staggering 40-plus movies to date Ñ from second-string character parts to leading roles, and he makes the most of it.

Clooney pals Matt Damon and Brad Pitt show up in a very funny, blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo, and Julia Roberts almost steals the film as a sexy fellow assassin. Drew Barrymore does what she does best as the cheerful girlfriend who puts up with Barris' flaky behavior and infidelities.

Then there's Clooney himself as Barris' CIA contact, Jim Byrd. Wearing a bushy, graying mustache and a snappy fedora, Clooney downplays to the point of being unrelentingly deadpan. And it works, beautifully, in no small part because by underplaying his role, Clooney lets Rockwell have the spotlight.

'Confessions of a Dangerous Mind' is a strange, funny, dark, bizarre movie and one hell of a debut for a first-time director. Part comedy, part satire, it'll cause you to leave the theater wondering how much of Barris' bizarre tale is really true Ñ and eagerly awaiting Clooney's next turn behind the camera.