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The con is fun but the truth hurts in 'Kubrick'

In "Color Me Kubrick," John Malkovich gets inside the head of flamboyant con man Alan Conway, who for a few years during the 1990s duped people into believing he was legendary director Stanley Kubrick. (MAGNOLIA PICTURES)

The genteelly shabby older man sidles up to a young fellow at a London pub and casually lets slip that he's working on a movie. After a bit of conversation, his name emerges: Stanley. Stanley Kubrick . Yes, it's true Kirk Douglas was a boor on the set of "Spartacus" and, goodness, I seem to have mislaid my laser platinum American Express card -- would you mind paying for the drinks?

The fact that Alan Conway (John Malkovich ) looked nothing like the great British director and didn't even have a solid grip on the man's filmography mattered not a whit. For a few years during the 1990s, the flamboyantly gay con man said he was famous, behaved as though he was famous, and was treated to the groveling reserved for the famous, despite every evidence that he was a drunken bum.

"Color Me Kubrick " digs all sorts of devilish ironies out of this "true...ish story," and it's a fine dark farce before turning sad and, worse, monotonous. The con wears off before the movie does, but while it's in the air, "Kubrick" spins with bogus cheer.

Right from the opening scene, you get a sense of the cheek of director Brian Cook and screenwriter Anthony Frewin (both former Kubrick assistants, by the way). A pair of young thugs out of "A Clockwork Orange " force their way into a posh London townhouse, demanding to see "Mr. Kubrick," but it turns out they're victims rather than victimizers -- just two more sods to whom the ersatz director promised the moon.

There are arch Stanley references all over "Color Me Kubrick": an adult bookshop called "The Blue Danube ," well-known music cues from any number of Kubrick classics, "Barry Lyndon " co star Marisa Berenson in a small role, a stray character named Lolita. The world itself conforms to the reclusive filmmaker's aesthetic, so why shouldn't Conway follow along? Is it so terribly wrong to enjoy the spotlight the director shuns?

The fake Kubrick feeds off the real director's mysterioso reputation, and each of his dupes believes he's been granted a special audience of one. The victims are generally young, exclusively male, all harboring a dream of fame, and "Color Me Kubrick" makes it clear how cruelly they were used. Or allowed themselves to be used: The movie's never-ending joke is that hope and self-interest blind them to the obvious. Conway never has to convince. All he has to do is mention, and his marks take it from there.

In a performance of high-wire camp, Malkovich dares you to believe anyone would mistake Conway for anything but a fraud. Swilling vodka until you can practically smell it seeping from his pores, using a different accent for each victim (I especially liked the one that sounds like Tony Curtis after shock treatment), this Kubrick wants nothing more than the next drink and the next boy toy, either of which might obliterate the pain of being Alan Conway.

Or is the self-loathing an act, too? Malkovich plays it both ways and after a while there's not much to the part except increasingly cloying playfulness. Conway's dupes include the married New York Times writers Frank Rich (William Hootkins ) and Alex Witchel (Berenson ), who in this telling become fascinated with the imposture and work to expose it. The movie never convinces us there's anyone there to expose, though, and Malkovich flits from scene to scene without ever anchoring Conway in a lasting reality.

Which is perhaps the point. In truth, Alan Conway had a wife and a son he abandoned. In truth, he and Stanley Kubrick died with in months of each other. No matter. "Color Me Kubrick" reminds us not that we can't handle the truth, but that we don't really want to.