"Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" was the stealth candidate for great movie of 2002.
It opened in New York and Los Angeles on the final days of the year and wasn't heralded by any of the kind of big, puffed-up prestige publicity that always accompanies Oscar magnets and Top 10 dwellers.
"The Hours"? "Gangs of New York"? "Chicago"? "Adaptation"? (Which is the fraternal twin of "Confessions;" both movies were written by Charlie Kaufman, the current Grand Prix lunatic and fantasizing wild man of modern Hollywood.)
Sure, sure, sure. You don't have to be a movie maven or critic to know those are, at the very least, greatness wannabes.
Before you actually see "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," though, all that you are most likely to know is that it's the movie that marks the directorial debut of George Clooney, one of the cooler, wittier and more silken of current heartthrobs.
And that it's based on the "unauthorized autobiography" (a great concept, you must admit) of Chuck Barris, the fellow who gave the world "The Dating Game," "The Newlywed Game" and "The Gong Show," and who claimed in his book that he doubled as a CIA hit man the whole time.
Interesting, of course, but hardly the ordinary idea of great material for a movie.
And now the news from here: "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" was one of the great movies of last year - simpler and smoother and more lovable than its fraternal twin "Adaptation" and, in its way, a truly exalted and wonderful specimen of American deadpan.
Let me be personal. I love this movie. It's even better than I hoped it would be and my hopes, I must tell you, were high.
Deadpan comedy is one of the things we Americans do best. We're good at keeping a poker face while telling absurd whoppers the size of Binghamton.
After Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce showed the way, Buster Keaton - "the great stone face" of silent film - made movie masterpieces out of it. Think of Peter Sellers and Inspector Clouseau or "Dr. Strangelove" for other inspired samples of our native genius for Deadpan. (Yes, Sellers was a British genius but he blossomed on our shores as few others have.) .
And now, we have in their league "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind." Clooney, screenwriter Kaufman and their moneybags Harvey Weinstein, all realized that here surely is one of the great and drolly hilarious American stories and that Barris is one of the authentic junk-brain geniuses of his time.
It's part of the marketing of "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" that everyone is pretending to play along with Barris' claim that he knocked off a bushel of spies while chaperoning winning candidates on "The Dating Game" in not-so-exotic places.
Of course, he didn't.
If you caught his charmingly self-effacing emergence into the spotlight on David Letterman and read between the lines, you understood exactly what led to the crazy fantasies: all his shows had been canceled, he was constantly reviled by critics of all sorts and he was worried that his name would forever be associated with nothing but "The Gong Show." So, in anger and despair, he wrote his book, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," indulging his hopelessly schlocky brain with maniac yarns of "wet work" for the spooks.
Part of Barris' despair, he says, is that TV critics unanimously treated him like the enemy of western civilization. Not so.
I was a daily TV columnist back then and it always seemed to me that "The Gong Show" was a kind of masterpiece of junk TV - the old vaudeville amateur night idea (complete with hook for bad acts) combined with the profoundly alienated sensibility of an artist.
It was Barris' old partner Chris Beard who first suggested that their proposed amateur hour concentrate on the hilariously bad acts that they were finding instead of the grand acts they were looking for.
When he finally broke down and made himself the host in a constant bath of facetious flopsweat, a junk masterwork was born.
Add to all that Jaye P. Morgan's R-rated gags and you have one of the great landmarks - such as it is - of the '70s and a forerunner of today's TV. (Watch the early episodes of "American Idol" for entertainment, "Gong Show" style.) .
There are seriousness genes somewhere in Barris, just as there are in most TV people, no matter how they earn their money. He couldn't just take the money and run (he sold his company for $50 million).
He had to tell a story to make himself look important.
Voila - the third-rate James Bondian fantasy that he invented that was the perfect flip side of "The Gong Show's" loving devotion to third-rateness.
And Clooney, in his brilliant debut as director, gets all this to play on screen in masterful deadpan.
His Barris is fine young actor Sam Rockwell. Clooney plays his CIA recruiter and operator, the one who assigns him all of his assassinations in scenic eastern Europe.
Drew Barrymore is the free-spirited woman in his California life, Julia Roberts is the sultry fantasy playmate/dominatrix of his murderous fantasy life. Old "Gong Show" compadres Jaye P. Morgan and Jamie Farr show up to pretend to tell us stories about the "real" Chuck Barris.
Make no mistake. Clooney isn't just a good film director, he may well turn into a great one if this keeps up. There is here a smooth self-assurance seldom encountered in actors making their directorial debuts.
Even with such a brilliant nutso script from Charlie Kaufman to point the way, you still have to know the right tone and get it.
In every scene.
In its wacko way, then, one of the great films of 2002.
"Confessions of a Dangerous Mind"
4 stars (Out of four)
Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts and George Clooney in Clooney's adaptation of game show sultan Chuck Barris' crazy life fantasies.