If "The Gong Show" host/creator Chuck Barris hadn't claimed to have been a CIA assassin in his spare time, no one would have bothered making a movie about him. Whether Barris was just telling tall tales in his 1982 autobiography "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" is almost beside the point. Without self-invention, there would be no Hollywood, so why shoot down a good yarn?

In his directorial debut, George Clooney presents Barris' so-called life with a straight face -- or at least as straight as could be expected from a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, the dangerous mind behind "Adaptation" and "Being John Malkovich." The Kaufman touches are abundant here: the blurred lines between "real life" and fiction; the playful, non-linear storytelling; the self-loathing protagonist.

But the movie also reflects the sensibilities of its director, whose comedic performances in particular have indicated a game spirit and droll sense of humor. Clooney's "Why not?" attitude seems consistent whether he's leading fellow thieves on an impossibly convoluted heist in "Ocean's Eleven" or trying to make a compelling big-screen character out of the possibly delusional man who gave us such forerunners of reality-TV cheese as "The Dating Game," "The Newlywed Game" and "The Gong Show."

"Confessions" is part biopic and part spy film, part satirical comedy and part love story, with Clooney showing much confidence as a storyteller as he mixes and matches his genres. The movie is compulsively watchable even if it never quite convinces you that it's much more than a fanciful story.

Sam Rockwell, the wiry young actor who is probably best known for playing the villain in "Charlie's Angels," plays Barris from a horny '50s teenager to an '80s has-been looking back with disgust. What Rockwell lacks in leading-man presence he makes up in energy; his characters' minds seem chronically on the verge of spinning off their axles while the rest of him tries to maintain balance.

Barris is something of a cad, but Rockwell makes his enthusiasm infectious. We're somehow happy to see him succeed in the bedroom or the boardroom even though his come-ons are crude and his TV ideas crass, though undeniably appealing in their own voyeuristic ways. In the later "Gong Show" days, the actor's mimicry evokes our memories of Barris in all his hand-clapping, head-scratching glory.

Before Barris can get "The Dating Game" from the planning stage to the tube, he is approached by a thick-mustached CIA recruiter, Jim Byrd (Clooney), who has targeted the TV up-and-comer because he "fits the profile." Barris, who at first just seems keen on being a secret agent, soon is carrying out hits in Mexico and eventually in Helsinki and East Berlin while he chaperones "Dating Game" winners.

Meanwhile, he has hooked up with Penny, perhaps the ultimate Drew Barrymore innocent sweetie, albeit one who at least initially believes in free love. Her dark counterpart is Patricia, Julia Roberts' glam femme fatale, who gives Chuck his assignments and a little something extra while overseas.

Both actresses have their moments, and Clooney also gets a brief, effective performance out of Rutger Hauer as another hit man whose paunch and weariness give him an odd poignancy. Clooney's own performance is an exercise in understatement as he delivers Byrd's lines in a flat whisper. The movie also features a pair of particularly funny cameos.

As a director Clooney has many tricks up his sleeve, with "Three Kings" cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel shooting the '60s "Dating Game" scenes in pastels while employing a grab bag of film stocks and looks elsewhere. The razzle-dazzle includes one unbroken shot that shows Barris first following a tour of NBC, then leading one as a page, then finally sitting in an office. There are also scenes where interior sets give way to exteriors and Barris moves from living rooms to corporate offices via revolving sets.

The result is a tingling sense that anything goes. As for what it all adds up to...In interviews promoting the movie, Barris, who cagily avoided addressing the story's truthfulness, said he wrote "Confessions" to point out the absurdity of someone being crucified for trying to entertain people at the same time he's being decorated for killing people. The statement's self-pitying aspects aside, that's a sharp, ironic point, but Clooney and Kaufman don't seem interested in pursuing themes that could be so easily summarized. The movie's most cutting observations tend to be tossed off, such as when Barris draws a sketch envisioning "The Newlywed Game" while a CIA trainer demonstrates applying electrodes to a dummy's crotch.

Consistent with Kaufman's other films, "Confessions" flags in energy toward the end as its entertaining provocations fail to add up to much more than a series of entertaining provocations. The spy plot embeds a nifty twist within its otherwise unsurprising resolution, and the movie does leave you pondering the contrasting ways of "killing" an audience. Otherwise we wind up with Chuck and Penny, and, really, we're not all that invested in whether this unconventional guy can find conventional domestic happiness.

The weight of Barris' self-loathing ultimately doesn't feel completely earned. OK, his shows weren't the greatest (though they seem rather tame in retrospect), and he was lambasted for "The Gong Show." Still, it's not like he had such serious aspirations in the first place.

Putting on a fun show sometimes is enough -- a lesson Clooney seems to have taken to heart. "Confessions" may not be clear on its ultimate destination, but it's an undeniably diverting ride.

3 stars (out of 4)

"Confessions of a Dangerous Mind"

Directed by George Clooney; written by Charlie Kaufman; based on the book by Chuck Barris; photographed by Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by Stephen Mirrione; production designed by James D. Bissell; music by Alex Wurman; produced by Andrew Lazar. A Miramax Films release; opens Friday, Jan. 24. Running time: 1:53. MPAA rating: R (language, sexual content, violence).
Chuck Barris -- Sam Rockwell
Penny -- Drew Barrymore
Jim Byrd -- George Clooney
Patricia -- Julia Roberts
Keeler -- Rutger Hauer Debbie -- Maggie Gyllenhaal

Mark Caro is the Chicago Tribune movie reporter.