A first cousin to Paul Schrader's Auto Focus, George Clooney's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind reaches back into the dump pile of vintage kitschy television lore to revive George Barris, inventor of such shows as "The Dating Game," "The Newlywed Game," and the embarrassing "The Gong Show." Like Auto Focus' Bob Crane, Barris, as depicted here, is remarkable for being so fundamentally ordinary, yet extraordinary in his extreme efforts to escape such mediocrity. As the richer and more humorous of the two films, Confessions should find the sizeable audiences it deserves.

Reading between the frames, viewers may suspect that, as presented in this exceptional film, Barris' life, as adapted by Charlie Kaufman from Barris' own book account, may be more phony than dangerous. While Barris' emergence from a dreary Jewish middle-class Philadelphia background to game-show fame is credible, his assertions (and the film's depictions) that he was part of a CIA killing team might strike those familiar with spy games as bunk.

Could the wiry little womanizing wiseguy from Philly, who penned the early '60s hit 'Palisades Park,' really have murdered 33 people in such far-flung, intrigue-infested locales as Mexico and West Berlin? No matter. As deliciously interpreted by Sam Rockwell, Barris emerges as yet another apotheosis of the ambitious everyman making good as he generates entertainment garbage, until payback time. In Barris' case, it's an industrial-strength mental breakdown. Clooney, Rockwell and Kaufman (Adaptation) must share credit for delivering a degenerate Barris as victim of some kind of cosmic justice and worthy of our compassion.

The film covers the years 1930 to 1981, beginning with kid Barris luring his sister's friend into sexual games. An older Barris heads for New York, breaks into showbiz as an NBC tour guide, and eventually concocts and gains network go-aheads and audiences for the dopey game shows he dreams up. All the while, he carries on a bumpy affair with devoted girlfriend Penny (Drew Barrymore), travels afar to make his CIA hits, as ordered by his omnipresent handler Jim Byrd (George Clooney), and falls under the spell of mysterious femme fatale operative Patricia (Julia Roberts).

Cameos from Brad Pitt and Matt Damon as "Dating Game" contestants and brief interviews with Dick Clark, Barris panelist Jaye P. Morgan, and 'Dating Game' host Jim Lange, and even a brief glimpse of the real Barris, enrich the pot.

Brilliantly stylized to suggest its time period and the hero's questionable, if dangerous, state of mind and fever-dreamlike recollections, Confessions never fails to entertain and intrigue.

-Doris Toumarkine