Imposters make good movie protagonists because their slipping from one colorful identity to another keeps suspense high about possible exposure (witness Tony Curtis in the shamefully neglected The Great Imposter or Leonardo Di Caprio in Catch Me If you Can). But when the con man barely bothers to go through the motions, when unmasking threatens few consequences, and when the script evinces no interest in his psychology, then it’s hard to deny that the filmmakers have squandered a good subject. Such is the sorry lesson of this insight-starved collection of vignettes about Alan Conway, a flamboyant queen who persuaded gullible denizens of London’s gay underbelly that he was Stanley Kubrick slumming, all this despite Conway’s utter lack of resemblance to the director of A Clockwork Orange and the latter’s resolutely straight identity.
Coyly styling itself as “a true-ish story”—though with Conway’s demise (a mere three months before Kubrick’s), the filmmakers seem answerable to no one for the story’s truth—the script soon lets any tension go slack while it dithers over a narrative viewpoint, trying face-the-camera narration from a journalist, then a letter spoken aloud by a disillusioned victim, yet returning to scenes that could only be known by Conway. The scattershot screenplay never digs below the surface to search out Conway’s hidden history (imprisonment in South Africa, deserting his wife for a male lover, the latter then succumbing to AIDS) and never risks addressing his class status, lack of education, or pathological absence of guilt, nor his internalized streak of vodka-fueled self-loathing worthy of The Boys in the Band (though without the catharsis or the cultural challenge of Matt Crowley’s 1968 play and its 1970 movie adaptation).
Anthony Frewin’s unsubtle screenwriting goes full frontal with lines like “Conway wrecks people’s lives and has no moral conscience” or Conway’s mocking self-diagnosis (“I’m trying to escape myself. That’s why I pretend to be someone else”), but the film offers nothing more profound, refusing to take its subject seriously, granting him none of the human sympathy granted to any man. Director Cook and screenwriter Frewin (both veteran assistants to Kubrick on numerous projects) are in no position to point a critical finger at Conway either since their own film recycles the Zarathustra fanfare and Strauss waltz from 2001: A Space Odyssey solely for cheap laughs.
A long way from his art-house work with Raúl Ruiz and Manoel de Oliveira, John Malkovich practically spits glitter as he throws himself into a grating gay impersonation, tottering about in high heels and mesh stockings, extending a paw for the most effete of handshakes, and batting his mascara-laden lashes. While the entire production looks fussily overcostumed in whimsical kitsch, it is the star who preens and prances in double-knotted ascots, floral print wrappers, champagne satin pants, pink anklets, and fluffy-fun furs, with novelty charm bracelets to set off his red nail polish. Unable to delve into Conway’s inner life, the actor can only play the character from the outside, fitting him with surface posturing and bizarrely random accents, ranging from breathy murmuring to Texas drawling to broad Bronx braying as he delivers bitchy one-liners (“The trouble with Marlon is he thinks he’s Brando”) and sub-Mae West double entendres (“I’ve never felt feelings so big inside me”). Of course, Malkovich is far too sophisticated an actor not to vary his tones, moving from dainty to jaded to cagey to desperate, but with no strong narrative impetus it all becomes pointless shading unmoored in psychological development.
In a third-act attempt to spark some friction, the sitcom-thin caricatures (laddish punk rockers and rent boys with a heart of gold) turn still thinner as the script introduces a Tom Jones-like entertainer, all gold medallions and designer jumpsuits, and his lowbrow housewife fan-girl, neatly managing to be condescending to gays and straights alike. Kubrick himself never appears (nor does the script give any indication that Conway caused the director more than a flyspeck of concern), but the production boasts cameos by vintage players like Honor Blackman (Goldfinger‘s Pussy Galore) and Marisa Berenson (Barry Lyndon‘s inamorata), not to mention a stunt appearance by Ken Russell, who enjoys a few seconds of screen time as a gibbering mental patient. Neither the light-hearted bonbon it aspires to be nor a credible critique of celebrity culture, the trivialized Color Me Kubrick tastes more like a brackish lollipop, after which audiences may well crave a few hours with Full Metal Jacket to cleanse the palate.