I'm all for the revival of movie musicals after Moulin Rouge and Chicago, but not for the return of good taste. You can't turn back the clock. But that doesn't stop director Irwin Winkler from trying in De-Lovely (which opens Friday, July 2, at Pacific Place), a ploddingly dull and overly delicate treatment of the life and music of Cole Porter (1891–1964). A gay man who maintained a long, decorous, and apparently open marriage to an heiress, the songwriter was not exactly the model of marital fidelity. Slipping away from older wife Linda to tryst with actors, dancers, and various Hollywood hunks between, during, and after his hit shows and movies, Porter provides a case study in the classic closeted double life.
Incredibly—for today's audiences, at least—Winkler makes De-Lovely a more or less conventional male-female love story, related in flashback from the aged Porter's perspective. (Linda predeceased him by a decade.) Modern moviegoers would call Linda a beard and the Porters' marriage a sham designed to help advance his early career on Broadway, but the film takes a mightily contorted approach to rebut that sensible view. Worse, the framing device is abetted by a magical angel or emcee figure (Jonathan Pryce) who stage-manages the life of the composer (Kevin Kline) in a kind of purgatorial rehearsal hall. Maybe Porter's dying, maybe he's already dead, but the movie starts out with a bad case of rigor mortis and never livens up.
Paris in the '20s! Socialites burst into song! There Porter meets and woos Linda (Ashley Judd, much younger than Kline—so much for casting logic). Then it's off to fabulous Venice! Broadway beckons! Hello, Hollywood! Many of Porter's classic songs are interspersed (almost none in their entirety), and one quickly loses interest in the downbeat arc of his life—bogus marriage, early success, promiscuity, career decline, crippling injury, bitterness, and death—in favor of the soundtrack artists.
British pop idol Robbie Williams sells the hell out of "It's De-Lovely," but relies more on his dimples than his pipes. A porky Elvis Costello gets stuck with a bad arrangement of "Let's Misbehave," forcing his voice way out of its reedy comfort zone; no surprise that his wife, jazz vocalist Diana Krall, irons out "Just One of Those Things" with droll authority—even if she lacks camera presence. A breathy Alanis Morissette is a nice surprise on "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love," and she looks great in period garb. Sheryl Crow looks even better for "Begin the Beguine," although she has no idea how to behave in slinky gloves and cocktail dress, windmilling her arms like a backstroker in an empty pool. Natalie Cole is, naturally, a total pro with "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye." Kline warbles weakly but effectively (and plays piano) as the famously weak-voiced Porter. Judd proves she's inherited at least some of her mother's talent by carrying a tune, yet it's her mother you'd rather hear doing an album of Porter standards.
The real problem with De-Lovely is that you never feel the passion of Porter's urges to write or to fuck. Forget sex—you barely see him kiss a Diaghilev dance-company dreamboat. After a curtain, he'll take a hansom cab into Central Park to stalk the boys in the bushes . . . and it's cut to Linda's disapproval in the morning. As for all his minor-key noodling at the keyboard, cigarette and Scotch nearby as pensive props, it's equally subdued, genteel, and . . . tasteful. For a real study in the contrast between unhappy offstage lives and theatrical bliss, check out Mike Leigh's excellent 1999 Gilbert and Sullivan picture, Topsy-Turvy.
A producer who leveraged his clout in late career to begin directing hokey mediocrities like Guilty by Suspicion and Life as a House, Winkler at least had the good taste to select Porter as a subject. But Porter's life—previously the subject of the sanitized 1946 Cary Grant vehicle Night and Day—doesn't mesh, or clash, interestingly with his art. There's no sex, no action, no dramatic trajectory to De-Lovely, which makes the gay-straight love story an even more implausible conceit. So why bother with it? If you can't wring one unified plot out of an unruly life, better to take the approach of Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould; make a virtue out of inconsistency, a montage.
If De-Lovely manages any genuine feeling, it's in the dying composer's final sourness. His own harshest critic in the afterworldly music hall (as he was in life), old Porter declares, "I never believed in anything, least of all myself." The movie nails that sentiment perfectly.