During the 1990s, a Londoner named Alan Conway successfully convinced countless victims that he was the reclusive Stanley Kubrick, deceiving some with offers of work on his movies, and taking eager advantage of the star-struck generosity of others. In Colour Me Kubrick, the debut feature from Brian W. Cook, Conway is embodied by John Malkovich, who romps his way through the “true-ish” story of Conway’s adventures.

Much of the movie is simply a series of vignettes, during which Conway lies to people, makes promises, and disappears, usually with at least a night of good food and drink -- sometimes sex, and posh holidays -- as payment for his deception. On one hand, then, the movie is a sprawling travelogue through Conway’s rather absurd life as Kubrick, a character he creates as very fey, bizarrely dressed, and equipped with a dizzying array of very bad accents. On the other hand, however, it’s an incredibly depressing story of one man’s lack of individuality, and the bizarre eagerness of his victims to believe they’re in the presence of greatness. Perhaps the film’s most disturbing element is just that -- the awesome gullibility of those deceived by Conway. One could understand their willingness to believe in his Kubrick if they were doing so after being promised stardom, money, or even friendship. The fact is, though, that the believing begins at the moment Conway introduces himself as the director, well before any promises have been made. It’s so strange and so illogical that an internal chorus of “WHY?” might sometimes threaten to drown out what is happening on screen. If one can get past that apparently true-to-life distraction, however, there’s an entertaining, if uneven, film to be found beneath it. Free to do pretty much anything he wants -- he is, after all, playing a man whose life revolved around being a gloriously bad actor -- Malkovich has a wonderful time with Conway, throwing out a new accent with every scene, and glorying in his wildly unflattering wardrobe. Of course, because Conway was almost never not on, it’s hard to judge just how good Malkovich’s performance is; at the very least, he’s attention-getting and effective as a man who proudly saw himself as larger-than-life.

While Colour Me Kubrick is largely episodic, two extended threads do surface in its second half; not coincidentally, they provide the film with its warmest, most fully developed characters. The first is actually quite brief, and features New York Times theater critic Frank Rich (a small role that William Hootkins somehow makes very appealing) trying to work out whether Conway really is Kubrick. Perhaps because he’s one of very few figures in the film who react to Conway the way we like to think we might, Rich provokes a tremendous amount of affection in just a few short scenes. The other major interaction that extends beyond a single episode is Conway’s relationship with the Tom Jones-esque crooner Lee Pratt (controversial British comedienne Jim Davidson, who once met and was taken in by Conway in his Kubrick guise), a character that the film’s producer calls Conway’s “love interest,” though their connection in the movie is limited to flirtatious looks and tantalizing offers of stardom in Vegas. The effectiveness of the Pratt-Conway saga -- it produces what is possible the only real emotion in the entire film -- is due in large part to Davidson’s performance. Davidson plays wildly against type (his humor has been described by critics as racist, misogynist, and homophobic), but instills the very gay, very camp Pratt with wit, sensitivity, and talent, all of which the character does his best to hide from the public. Despite Pratt’s very loud, unsubtle persona, Davidson gracefully gives him a depth that goes miles beyond anything Malkovich is able to unearth in Conway.

In the end, that lack of depth is perhaps the most notable thing about Colour Me Kubrick. There is an almost explosive joy to Pratt’s performances, and genuine sorrow when he realizes that his dreams are nothing but the promises of con man. Outside of that character, however, all of the emotion in the film is artificially constructed; it’s something that’s worn for show, both by Conway and his victims. As a result, the movie is a difficult one to relate to: we sense that it might intend to be a fun exploration of a bizarre true story, but in reality, apart from Pratt, there’s very little that’s fun about it. Instead, our reactions are almost entirely intellectual -- we think events in the film are funny, or think that they’re sad, but rarely if ever feel anything for the film and its characters; whether that’s a major flaw or a brilliant directorial decision is up to individual viewers to decide.