Game show impresario Chuck Barris' brand of entertainment was predicated on farce. His string of campy hit 1970s TV shows--The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show--delighted in their own silly spectacle. Forerunners of today's Nielsen-topping reality shows (The Bachelor, American Idol), Barris' lowbrow shows were so bad they were good.

So what is one to make of Barris' also having been a longtime CIA hit man? In Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the screen adaptation of his so-called "unauthorized autobiography," Barris claims to have taken out 33 Cold War targets for Uncle Sam. Some of the killings even came while chaperoning Dating Game winners to such exotic locations as Berlin. Barris spent a lot of years watching the likes of Phyllis Diller and Jamie Farr bang the gong for the amateur "talents" who paraded across the Gong Show stage, while the Unknown Comic and Gene Gene the Dancing Machine provided freakshowlike respite. Maybe he's afraid the life story we know, minus the CIA backstory, would garner the same fate. Or maybe Barris knows the sillier the performance, the better the act.

Fittingly, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and first-time director George Clooney don't seem to care how much of Barris' account is true. This movie hinges on the telling of an irresistible tale. As writer of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, Kaufman has shown an effortless gift for surreal comedy--which is also the case with Confessions. Here, the discrepancy between kitschy showman and cold-blooded hit man is no obstacle. Rather, it's an asset by which Kaufman heightens the film's deft sense of absurdity.

Never having expressed interest in directing before Confessions, Clooney says he was motivated by a desire to shepherd Kaufman's superb script to the screen after years of in-development purgatory. That said, Clooney's stylistic ambition is undeniable. He draws from the work of frequent collaborator Steven Soderbergh, as well as Three Kings' David O. Russell, to present the film in appropriately expressionistic high contrasts and saturated colors. Clooney tapped Kings cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel for the picture; Sigel's camera is always moving. Although Clooney sometimes goes overboard visually, there is so much energy and imagination to his work that he can be forgiven. Photogenic as he is, this guy should get behind the camera more often.

Clooney draws a cheeky performance from Sam Rockwell (Charlie's Angels, Lawn Dogs), who staggers through the '70s icon's life as if it were one comically strange trip. At the same time, Rockwell's Barris shows he is smarter than the throwaway entertainment he peddles. What hampers Rockwell is having to compete with a much more famous surrounding cast. He's a good actor, but no movie star--unlike, say, Julia Roberts, whom Clooney casts in a rare supporting role as one of Barris' fellow CIA operatives. Or the hunky director himself, who plays Barris' Agency contact. Matt Damon and Brad Pitt even offer brief cameos. So...Sam Rockwell is the star? Doesn't feel like it sometimes.

If Confessions of a Dangerous Mind never completely reveals the true Barris behind the kitsch and (maybe) the killing, that's by design. This isn't a John Malkovich whose brain we peer into; it's a carnival sideshow attraction loosely based on a life. Which is not at all a bad thing: Like the shows he created, the charade is probably a lot more fun than the facts. Barris is a Wizard of Oz figure, a little man spinning big tales behind a curtain of chicanery.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

Rated R Opens Friday, Jan. 24.