John Malkovich turns on the smarm as a genius imposter
John Malkovich dominates Colour Me Kubrick in much the same way a poodle might lift its pampered leg to claim each stationary street object with its personal scent. He's offensive, oblivious, frilly, absurd all in service to a character's refined self-preservative instinct, of course.
This happens from his first seconds onscreen, when he's just a background form moving blurrily down a rear staircase while we're supposed to be focused on an attractive young foreground figure who turns out to be the focus of Malkovich's attention too. As late real-life Stanley Kubrick impersonator Alan Conway, the actor sashays toward us and his prey with such louche, pervy, fagalicious focus that he immediately becomes a deluxe comic creation who transcends offensive stereotypes.
Malkovich is such a mannered thespian and a weird cultural icon that Being John Malkovich (1999) could count (and base itself) on his amused participation. How many contemporaneous Hollywood stars would consent to pomo ridicule of themselves? He is so frequently wrong-but-interesting (in 1988's Dangerous Liaisons, for starters) that one tends to forget the times he's been brilliantly apt, as in The Sheltering Sky (1990) and Ripley's Game (2002). He's peculiar enough to almost always feel like stunt casting akin to a CGI effect, vivid yet not remotely natural.
This is one reason he's so perfect for Kubrick, drawn from one of those stranger-than-fiction news items in which everyday humanity's vulnerable trust in itself is laid bare by some con-artist freak with delusions of grandeur. For a spell in the 1980s, middle-aged London dole queue yobbo Conway, no stranger to pulling scams, hit on a great one: impersonating Kubrick, the expat American considered by many the world's greatest director, whose famous reclusiveness ensured that very few knew how he actually looked and sounded (i.e., nothing like Conway).
Conway used the starry-eyed glaze prompted by this sham identity to cadge free drinks and dinners from strangers (after all, would a wealthy celebrity like Kubrick bother carrying vulgar cash?), seduce young men (gay and straight a promised career boost from cinema's master proves to be major psychological lube), and generally act like the flaming fountain of specialness Conway thought he was. Several gullible real folk fell hard for this ruse, coughing up cash or freebies to buy favor from the "genius." In the film, they include fictive comedian Lee Pratt (Jim Davidson), posh restaurant owner Jasper (Richard E. Grant), even a heavy metal band. They were hoodwinked despite Conway's not even bothering to research his role he knew only superficial facts about Kubrick and often made pronouncements that would strike anyone with half a brain as ludicrous. (At one point he announces his next project will be 3001, with "Elizabeth Taylor as Mission Control.") Eventually Conway's reputation (and embittered victims) hit the public radar, ending his game.
Malkovich is the whole show here. He's fearlessly willing to play the fool several times Conway's chunky ass occupies center screen, underlining not just the protagonist's but the actor's ignorance of the concept behind a Stairmaster. Conway dons a steady stream of fashion don'ts (minikimono, anyone?), imbibes beaucoup vodka, and sobs so hysterically when his latest hot young lover storms out that you might think these histrionics are genuine at last. But that too is an act. Gloriously indulged, Malkovich revels in the role of a self-loathing wannabe narcissist who may not possess one genuine bone in his unlovely body.
Kept afloat by one spectacularly good performance and a delightful premise, Colour Me Kubrick is otherwise a somewhat leaky boat. First-time director Brian W. Cook suggests this may not be his ideal career role. His movie often haplessly jumps from one incident to another, as if connective scenes were axed by either budgetary or intellectual limitations. It relies too heavily on music cues from Kubrick flicks (such as the Moog classicals of 1971's A Clockwork Orange) and in-joke cameos (Marisa Berenson, Ken Russell). Still, Cook's earned the brownie points and then some necessary to make this film: he was Kubrick's assistant director from 1975's Barry Lyndon through the posthumously released Eyes Wide Shut (1999). (Scenarist Anthony Frewin also worked as Kubrick's researcher, from 1968's 2001 on.) Cook's résumé is juicy with stellar successes, famous flops (Orca: Killer Whale, 1977), and cult flicks (1973's original The Wicker Man, 1980's Flash Gordon, the 1979 Who documentary The Kids Are Alright). He's worked for Michael Cimino (1980's Heaven's Gate onward), occasional auteur Sean Penn, Brian de Palma, and Mel Brooks.
The world may not suffer greatly if Cook never directs another movie again. But if he doesn't eventually write a tell-all professional biography, I will cry. I nearly cried during Colour Me Kubrick but only because John Malkovich was almost too funny to bear. *
COLOUR ME KUBRICK
Opens Fri/23 at Bay Area theaters
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