Color Me Kubrick: John Malkovich as Gay Middle-Aged Man Masquerading as the Director

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

A doomed effort in satirizing our societys unhealthy obsession with celebrity, director Brian Cooks Color Me Kubrick recounts the unlikely story of a London travel agent who in the early 1990s tricked strangers into believing he was the reclusive director Stanley Kubrick. Despite a gutsy (but ineffective) lead performance by John Malkovich, the film fails because of its insistence on a glib comedic tone that bars any emotional investment in the tale.

Based on the true story, Color Me Kubrick introduces us to Alan Conway (Malkovich), a gay, middle-aged man without much money living in a rundown apartment in London. Conway finds meaning in his lonely, miserable life by masquerading as revered filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. Conway goes out to clubs, preying on gullible people who believe theyve just become friends with a notoriously media-shy legend. As a result, Conway is showered with gifts and free meals by unsuspecting victims who want to win his favor.

Trouble appears on the horizon, though, when he confronts New York Times critic Frank Rich (William Hootkins) at a restaurant, arguing with him about negative articles the Times ran on Kubrick. At first, Rich is stunned and awed to meet Kubrick, but he later realizes that this man looks nothing like the real director. This begins media inquiries into Conways true identity, which puts his latest con into jeopardy: bringing British lounge singer Lee Pratt (Jim Davidson) to the attention of the American audience.

The real events are so unlikely that they make for a potentially fascinating film. Conway didn’t look like Kubrick and also lacked basic knowledge of the mans films, yet still managed to fool many people over a period of time. But the crucial mistake made by Color Me Kubrick is that, rather than trying to explain what factors in our culture could allow such an outrageous scam to occur, director Cook and screenwriter Anthony Frewin choose to poke easy fun at the absurdity of the events.

By steering the narrative into that direction, the film adopts a superficially silly tone and openly mocks Conways victims–some of whom risked their financial well being because of his promises to help their careers. If Conways desires were better articulated–if we could sense his deep longing to be loved or even why he chose Kubrick as his disguise without bothering to research the man–then perhaps it would be easier to understand his motivations. But Cook and Frewin dont show any curiosity for Conways reasons to live a lie. Consequently, the audience is left with no empathetic characters–Conway is a pathetic cipher and his targets are all nave buffoons.

By incorporating several very recognizable musical snippets from Kubricks films into the score during supposedly comedic scenes, Color Me Kubrick encourages the audience to laugh at how ridiculous Conways charade is, but the humor seems callous, finding delight in the twisted sickness of these true-life events. According to the film, Conway often targeted struggling artists or entrepreneurs who needed a patron such as Kubrick to realize their dream. But rather than sympathizing with these victims, or at least recognizing the genuineness of their fragile dreams, Color Me Kubrick ridicules them, setting up several sequences whose payoff is always the suckers humiliating discovery that hes been swindled by a charlatan. These realizations are played for laughs that feel entirely too mean-spirited.

Malkovich is to be commended for intentionally making Conway so unlikable and conniving that he becomes a noxious force of nature. Best known for roles in which he displays a sophisticated demeanor with at least a hint of malevolence (In the Line of Fire, Dangerous Liaisons), Malkovich here plays a feeble failed man whose world seems to be a tattered knot of delusions, multiple fake accents, and desperate gambits. Its a very brave performance, but eventually Conway comes across as just too repugnant and manipulative to appreciate Malkovichs risky strategy.

Malkovichs portrayal also lacks the necessary charisma that would make Conways many cons believable. Though the real-life Conway didnt look like Kubrick, he managed to deceive people into believing the illusion. By comparison, Malkovichs mannerisms and affectations never congeal into a unified whole, to the point where his Conway never seems capable of such subterfuge.

None of the other actors make much of an impact, including Richard E. Grant, who, like so many of the supporting players, is encouraged by Cook to portray his character as a fool worthy of scorn.

An interesting study in celebrity worship goes by the wayside in these one-note characterizations. Instead of suggesting how everyone–even the audience–enjoys rubbing elbows with the famous and powerful, Color Me Kubrick opts to distance itself from its victims, severing the intriguing connection between the viewer and the conned individuals on the screen.

Cook, a former assistant director to Kubrick, and Frewin, Kubricks former assistant, pepper Color Me Kubrick with many references to the films of their old boss. Beyond musical allusions, the movie occasionally features Kubricks trademark Steadicam shots, as well as pays homage to certain scenes and actors. (Marisa Berenson, from Barry Lyndon, appears briefly.)

While the film may appeal most strongly to Kubricks many fans, these references underscore how, even as satire, Color Me Kubrick lacks the essential acerbic tone the old master would have brought to the story. In films as diverse as Barry Lyndon, A Clockwork Orange, and Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick adeptly utilized unsympathetic protagonists to investigate deeper societal issues, often with a darkly humorous edge. Color Me Kubricks allusions to Kubrick’s films are meant to celebrate the lasting influence of his work, but the films skin-deep characterizations unintentionally demonstrate how irreplaceable Kubrick was as an artist.

Credits

Running time: 86 minutes

Director: Brian Cook
Production companies: Colour Me K Productions, Europa Corp., Isle of Man Film Ltd., First Choice Films, Canal Plus, TPS Star
US distribution: Magnolia Pictures
Executive Producers: Luc Besson, Pierre-Ange Le Pogam, Steve Christian, Donald A. Starr, Daniel J.B. Taylor, Colin Leventhal
Producers: Michael Fitzgerald, Brian Cook
Co-Producer: Penelope Glass
Screenplay: Anthony Frewin
Cinematography: Howard Atherton
Editor: Alan Strachan
Production design: Crispian Sallis
Music: Bryan Adams

Cast

Alan Conway (John Malkovich)
Lee Pratt (Jim Davidson)
Jasper (Richard E. Grant)
Rupert Rodnight (Luke Mably)
Hud (Marc Warren)
Norman (Terence Rigby)
Melvyn (James Dreyfus)
Frank Rich (William Hootkins)
Alix Rich (Marisa Berenson)