Directed by George Clooney. Starring Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Rutger Hauer, Maggie Gyllenhaal.

For those who don't know, Chuck Barris could be the father of what we now call TV. In the 70s his groundbreaking concepts for 'The Dating Game' and 'The Newlywed Game' brought us to today's 'Blind Date' and 'Boys and Girls', and his 'The Gong Show' is a direct ancestor of 'Pop Stars' and 'Pop Idol'. In the 80s he published an autobiography in which he claimed he had lived a double life: TV executive by day, CIA assassin by night.

When the film opens, Barris (Rockwell) is in his 50s. Washed up and single-handedly blamed for the 'dumbing down' of American popular culture, he locks himself in a New York hotel room. Unhinged and naked, he decides to pen his memoirs.

Sexual frustration and self-loathing led the media-wannabe to a lot of bar fights in his twenties, until a job as an NBC tour guide in 1955 started him on the road to stardom. Boosted by his penning of Freddy Cannon's 60s pop hit 'Pacific Palisades', he meets the straight-talking, serial-shagging Penny (Barrymore) and finally gets the girl, but the resulting relationship is far from functional.

At one and the same time he finds out his barfly-ing is being monitored by a mysterious moustachioed man (Clooney), who approaches him to find out if he wants to join his 'problem solving agency' and help 'quell the rise of communism'. Some snow-bound foreign training later and Barris is back in New York, double-jobbing as it were.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman ('Adaptation' and 'Being John Malkovich') does a flawless job of transferring Barris' 'cautionary tale' to the big screen. The flashback re-run of his life is interspersed with footage of various colleagues and pundits offering their own opinions of Barris, their comments often pre-figuring what is about to happen.

Barris' 'other' life may be bizarre - he ends up awarding trips to 'fabulous West Berlin' to hapless quiz couples as a cover for his CIA operations; but then so is his 'real' life - at a party, a Playboy Bunny accuses him of subjecting the rest of the world to his own 'loathsome views of humanity'.

Throughout Sam Rockwell is spot-on. You will feel pity, disgust and affection for the man as his paranoia rockets out of control. And while you will never be sure who or what to believe, you will keep watching in the hope of finding out.

Better known as a Hollywood heartthrob, Clooney makes an accomplished first foray behind the camera. He also stars himself, but manages to give the film a certain amount of breathing space, keeping his own ego behind the lens and allowing the spotlight to fall fully on Rockwell. He drags in mates Matt Damon and Brad Pitt for amusing but brief cameos. And, while there is way too much of Julia Roberts' nasty, sexy assassin, Drew Barrymore transcends her kooky girl competencies to bring a kind of controlled pathos to her role as Barris' flaky, smiley girlfriend.

You can't but enjoy it, but you will come away with only one certainty: Clooney has proved himself as a director. Barris' confessions may be audacious and ridiculous, but part of you will want to believe him.

Cristín Leach