After more than 25 years in the movie business, John Malkovich has carved out a unique niche for himself, a cinematic netherworld equal parts post-modernism and cult of personality.
His charisma has always been apparent, whether adding a dash of suave cruelty to Dangerous Liasons (1988) or mercurial menace to In the Line of Fire (1993). But it has been his more recent, more adventurous work in smaller, independent films that has firmly established his reputation as something of a maverick.
Malkovich plays the lead role in Color Me Kubrick, a quirky little film based on true events that opens this weekend at Shattuck Cinemas in downtown Berkeley. He plays Peter Conway, a con man who passed himself off for months as legendary film director Stanley Kubrick, swindling a string of star-struck victims along the way. He took money from them, slept with them, promised them roles in his films, even offered them financial backing for their own endeavors.
Director Brian Cook and screenwriter Anthony Frewin were there as the real-life drama unfolded, the former as Kubrick’s assistant director, the latter as his personal assistant. Frewin in fact was responsible for screening the calls that started coming in from irate strangers who would have Kubrick’s head for having fleeced them in the days and weeks previous, in ramshackle bars and nightclubs and taxicabs all over London.
There are many paths that could be taken in adapting such material for the screen. The story could easily lend itself to a psychological drama about a man who seeks escape from his dreary existence by adopting the identity of a famous recluse; or a noirish melodrama of a con artist operating in seedy bars, with plenty of narrow escapes and shady intrigue; or a journalistic mystery perhaps, with reporters unraveling the sordid tale of a smooth-talking seducer taking money and favors from down-and-out would-be stars all over London.
Instead the filmmakers have opted for another approach, one that contains elements of all of the above while playing up the absurdist aspects of the story in the creation of a film that poses more questions than it answers. They have chosen to emphasize the humor and depravity of Conway’s ruse without attempting to divine the motivations behind the charade, electing to make a piece of light entertainment rather than a probing drama. They’ve taken more than a few liberties with the tale, embellishing here and there and working with Malkovich in fashioning the already eccentric Conway into a character even more flamboyant and inscrutable.
The film doesn’t present Conway as a master con artist; he’s clumsy, he gets caught now and then, and when he does escape it’s more often the result of luck rather than cunning. In fact, the character, like the real-life man, doesn’t even know much about Kubrick or his films and doesn’t bother to do much research. Instead he relies on instinct, improvising the character anew with each new situation. An interesting study could have been built upon the various incarnations of Kubrick that Conway creates: For some victims, he portrays the director as a suave sophisticate, sometimes with a British accent, sometimes with Malkovich’s own jaded purr; for others he presents Kubrick as a brash New Yorker, or an arrogant Las Vegas lounge lizard; for still others, a mild-mannered upper-crust American, weary of recognition and thus traveling under an assumed name. On a whim he decides which incarnation best suits his victim and then proceeds to soften him up, flattering him with the attention of one of the world’s best-known but least-visible film directors.
The movie is episodic and slightly discursive, never dull but often rambling. Cook and Frewin never quite manage to find the thread which could pull the whole thing together. Instead the film merely revels in Conway’s deceptions, true and otherwise, taking pleasure in the eccentricity of the man and his brazen scams and infusing them with wry comic touches. For instance, iconic musical themes from classic Kubrick films appear throughout, often providing ironic counterpoint to the action. A particularly effective example shows Conway, after a night of Kubrick-fueled deception and debauchery, stumbling downstairs from his low-rent hovel, crossing the street past the “Bleu Danube” adult shop, and tossing his dirty clothes into an open machine at the laundromat—all choreographed to the delicate strains of Johann Strauss’ On the Beautiful Blue Danube, the piece used to such great effect in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The inspired decision to cast Malkovich is the film’s saving grace, adding a whole new dimension to the proceedings. Since Being John Malkovich (1999), the actor’s image—eccentric, bemused, arrogant, slightly bored but always enigmatic and vaguely dangerous—has in a way become the subject of many of his films. Thus Cook and Frewin are able to employ the actor’s self-relexive persona as a hook on which to hang the film’s increasingly surreal episodes, bringing layers of complexity to an already strange tale. For it isn’t merely Malkovich playing Conway, but rather it is Malkovich playing “John Malkovich” playing Peter Conway playing Stanley Kubrick. And the kaleidoscopic tone becomes even more mind boggling in a scene where Malkovich-as-Malkovich-as-Conway-as-Kubrick regales dinner companions with tales of conflicts with studio management over the casting of John Malkovich in the lead for his next film.
Color Me Kubrick could have benefited from a more direct narrative, a more conventional through-line to tie together its absurdist humor and flights of eccentric fancy. Instead it relies on the cult of Malkovich, showcasing the actor’s strange mystique. It may not be a great film, but if you count yourself among the cult, it’s quite a ride.
COLOR ME KUBRICK
Directed by Brian Cook. Written by Anthony Frewin. Starring John Malkovich. 89 minutes. Not rated. Playing at Shattuck Cinemas.
Photograph: John Malkovich plays a Stanley Kubrick imposter in Color Me Kubrick.