28 March 2007

COLOURLESS

A film that liberally quotes from the stylebook of Stanley Kubrick ought to be many things before it is "forgettable," but Colour Me Kubrick, the story of a low-rent conman who pretended to be the director during the first half of the 1990s, is not just forgettable, it is the Platonic Ideal of a movie that sticks in your head for not one moment after you've left the theater.

I imagine that director Brian Cook and writer Anthony Frewin - associates of the real Kubrick - wanted to make a clever little indictment of celebrity culture, and it's not not that. The plot, such as it is, consists of a series of incidents in which Alan Conway (John Malkovich) tricks somebody into giving him money or sex or both, despite sporting a ridiculous (and ever-changing) cartoon accent and behaving in no way, shape or form like an internationally renowned filmmaker. The point is that these people are so desire to touch fame and use it to advance their own lives that they will believe the most self-evident bullshit.

That's a fine concept, although it feels something like a sketch comedy (in fact, it's like a very specific sketch comedy: Monty Python's Flying Circus and the "Fraud Film Squad" sketch), insofar as none of the plots build upon each other, and Conway is playing a different version of Kubrick in every scam. In an alternate universe where Saturday Night Live was stocked with performers from Steppenwolf, and not the Second City, I can imagine the recurring adventures of Malkovich's Alan Conway being a weekly highlight. Obviously, that's a specifically insane idea, but work with me here: the film is a collection of sketches. Okay, there we go.

What's there is funny and cute, although funny and cute only takes you so far. Of particular delight is the first scene, in which two Cockney thugs threaten an elderly upper-class couple who live in the flat that Conway left as his address; the scene is a shot-for-shot and line-for-line redo of the opening to the infamous "Singin' in the Rain" scene from A Clockwork Orange. Later scenes reference some of the other major films in the Kubrick canon: the music from 2001 is omnipresent, and I recognized the odd shot or quote from The Shining here and there. It feels a bit like a big-budget YouTube parody, however, and that's part of its essential problem. It has one plot point, and one theme, and it hits them in every scene in exactly the same way. The Kubrick parodies are just about the only thing to differentiate one moment from the next.

John Malkovich does not save the film per se although his performance is quite a thing to behold. It's not "good" in the classical sense, because he's not really playing a character with an actual psychology, he's playing a variety of camp impersonations. And it's honestly a great deal of fun to watch. Perhaps it's only my own weak spot, but there's something delightful about watching a great performer play a role as broadly cartoonish as it can possibly be played, and Alan Conway was already such a drama queen as to make this a glorious spread of scenery-chewing.

Malkovich's presence is also a bit of a distraction, however, because he's already been in a film that covers much of the same starfucking thematic ground that Colour Me Kubrick does. I refer of course to Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's Being John Malkovich, which contains virtually every idea in the present screenplay, and several dozen besides. And it was a terrible, terrible move that Frewing saw fit to steal a gag from that film almost verbatim: in one scene, ConwayKubrickMalkovich is describing an upcoming project to star none other than American actor John Malkovich, leading to the requisite confusion as to who he's talking about. In the Kaufman screenplay, that was a thematic nugget related to the film's overall deconstructing of celebrity identity; here it's just a funny in-joke.

There's a truly dismaying paucity of fresh ideas throughout the thing. It's simply not a movie, not as it stands. It's a five-minute demo reel stretched to feature length. It's not particularly surprising to learn that both the director and the writer are debuting with this film, but I do wish Malkovich had been a bit choosier. It's quite easy to see what attracted him to the role - the chance to be totally goofy - but this is not a character. It's a concept.

It's more than a little tempting to wonder what Kubrick himself might have done with a subject like this. It would have been both darker and funnier, and quite possibly more humane. It would have almost certainly been mostly unlike anything else in the contemporary cinema. And that's the rub of it: devotedly recreating his greatest hits is hardly as appropriate a tribute as inventing something completely new and unusual. This move could have been an excruciatingly insightful demolition of celebrity worship, instead of a simple-minded little vaudeville joke. There's nifty moments here and there, but the film runs out of gas almost immediately, and has nothing to thrive on after that beyond the self-satisfaction of the filmmaking team that clearly thought they had something much more intelligent than turns out to be the case.

5/10

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