“This fictional portrait of a real-life British con man who hustled his way across England by impersonating the reclusive filmmaker Stanley Kubrick is a platform for John Malkovich to burst into lurid purple flame.” Stephen Holden
Even if it doesn’t add up to more than a fitfully amusing collection of comic sketches, “Color Me Kubrick” — a fictional portrait of Alan Conway, a real-life British con man who hustled his way across England by impersonating the reclusive, seldom-photographed filmmaker Stanley Kubrick — is a platform for John Malkovich to burst into lurid purple flame.
As you watch his Conway preen and prate, adopting outlandish accents that range from the drawl of a supercilious dilettante to the bray of a Bronx promoter, it is obvious that the actor is having a wonderful time camping it up. But if Mr. Conway, who died in 1998 (three months before Kubrick himself), was really as ridiculous as the character Mr. Malkovich creates, could he have gotten away with his scams? I wonder.
One who crossed his path was Frank Rich of The New York Times, who encountered Conway-as-Kubrick in a London restaurant. When he looked further into the man’s identity, he discovered the ruse and in 1993 wrote a column about it.
Mr. Malkovich’s flamboyant hustler is only the latest in his gallery of eccentric, owl-eyed flimflam men. Since “Dangerous Liaisons” nearly 20 years ago, he has more or less owned the type: a seducer-thief who speaks in weirdly slowed-down speech patterns and casts a hypnotic power. His Conway is nowhere near as convincing a sociopath as the murderous Tom Ripley, a role that seemed made for him in “Ripley’s Game,” but he is still fun to observe.
With a soundtrack built around excerpts from Kubrick film scores and an opening scene that parodies “A Clockwork Orange,” this arch, episodic movie is really an affectionate sequence of in-jokes conceived as a posthumous homage to Kubrick by two knowing insiders.
Brian Cook, the director, was an assistant director on the Kubrick films “The Shining,” “Barry Lyndon” and “Eyes Wide Shut.” Anthony Frewin, who wrote the screenplay, was Kubrick’s personal assistant. The in-jokes even extend to one about Mr. Malkovich himself that alludes to the 1999 movie “Being John Malkovich.”
Mr. Conway, who was gay and seriously alcoholic, used his celebrity alter ego to prey on young men, often encountered in bars, to whom he coyly disclosed his false identity before seducing them with promises of work as actors or designers on forthcoming projects. Sometimes he invented the films’ titles on the spot. He also cadged drinks, claiming he had left his credit card at home. His marks were only too happy to pay. To impress them, he liked to meet them outside the front door of a fancy address that wasn’t his.
In the film these slightly unnerving scenes suggest how shameless flattery, name-dropping and chutzpah can carry a determined seducer wielding a bogus celebrity mystique. A recurring joke is that Conway wasn’t all that careful in his research. His knowledge of Kubrick’s films had major gaps, and more than once he slips up, is caught and is forced to flee.
The scam to which the movie devotes the most time involves Conway/Kubrick’s promise to help establish Lee Pratt (Jim Davidson), a gold-tuxedo-wearing television entertainer with dyed blond hair, as a star in Las Vegas. While they lay plans to conquer America, Lee, a low-rent Liberace with an Elvis gleam in his eye, installs Conway in a luxury hotel suite on the south coast of England. Relishing his dual roles of celebrity and star maker, Conway lives high on the hog, consuming gallons of vodka and cartons of cigarettes until Lee’s manager becomes suspicious, and the game is up.
Although the movie provides scattered glimpses into Conway when he is not on the make, they are too few to give a coherent sense of who he might be beneath his poses. Perhaps, like many performers, he fully exists only when playing a role. Once the movie gets started, it doesn’t know where to go or how to end. It more or less repeats itself.
The sharpest satire is reserved for the fools who swallow an act that seems transparently fake. Anyone who has watched a TV star besieged by gawking and drooling fans knows what encounters with fame can do in a culture of blind celebrity worship.
COLOR ME KUBRICK
Directed by Brian Cook; written by Anthony Frewin; director of photography, Howard Atherton; edited by Alan Strachan; music by Bryan Adam; production designer, Crispian Sallis; produced by Mr. Cook and Michael Fitzgerald; released by Magnolia Pictures. In Manhattan at the IFC Center, 323 Avenue of the Americas, at Third Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 90 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: John Malkovich (Alan Conway), Jim Davidson (Lee Pratt), Richard E. Grant (Jasper), Luke Mably (Rupert Rodnight), Marc Warren (Hud), Terence Rigby (Norman), James Dreyfus (Melvyn), Peter Bowles (Cyril), Ayesha Dharker (Dr. Stukeley), Robert Powell (Robert), Henry Goodman (Mordecai), Maynard Eziashi (Adibe), Leslie Philips (Freddie), Honor Blackman (Madame), William Hootkins (Frank Rich), Marisa Berenson (Alex Witchel), Lynda Baron (Mrs. Vitali), Ken Russell (the Man in a Nightgown) and Peter Sallis (the Second Patient).