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Film review

'De-Lovely' isn't pretty

The film about Cole Porter is a mishmash of styles that fails to do the composer, or his work, justice.

Published July 15, 2004

[Photo: MGM Pictures]
Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) and singer Alanis Morissette rehearse Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love). She is one of many contemporary artists performing Cole’s classic tunes in De-Lovely.

Summer movie preview
View a clip of De-Lovely

Cole Porter was undeniably a musical genius. It's the film that director Irwin Winkler cobbled together to celebrate Porter's talent that's a dunce.

It's De-Lovely, but in name only. The movie is actually an ugly compilation of clashing cinematic styles occasionally salvaged by musical numbers that essentially are part of the problem. You can't make a good movie about a 1930's composer using a 1970's film conceit while hiring 21st century recording artists to perform Porter's classic songs. A tribute CD, maybe, but not a movie.

Winkler struggles to keep De-Lovely from playing too old-fashioned when that's precisely what the material deserves. The movie could be, should be, just like the glossy celebrity biographies Hollywood churned out 50 years ago, with an honesty about Porter's private homosexual life that previous eras wouldn't allow. Take away the musical interludes and De-Lovely would be a rudimentary Oxygen channel melodrama, sanitized to insignificance by Winkler's lack of boldness.

The other problem is that Winkler and screenwriter Jay Cocks insist upon a story structure inspired by All That Jazz, presumably for motivation for breaking into song at the strangest moments. It's established that a dying Porter (Kevin Kline in superb aging makeup) is watching a stage review of his life and music, directed by the angel Gabriel (Jonathan Pryce). The central theme - that Porter's masterpieces reflected his conflicted romantic existence - is interesting for a while.

Porter is unshakably gay, yet he immediately falls in love with Linda Lee Thomas (Ashley Judd), a divorcee who understandably returns the affections of such a charmer. What isn't exactly clear is why Linda marries Porter knowing he's gay and allows his dalliances. Or why she changes her mind later. Everything just happens. Cocks' screenplay doesn't give anyone many chances to explain. There are too many songs to incorporate in Winkler's hit parade.

Then many of those songs sound too contemporary to keep the story genuine. Elvis Costello's nasal delivery wouldn't have been allowed on a bandstand in the 1930s, although the mildly decadent masquerade ball surrounding his Let's Misbehave number is one of the film's livelier sequences. Sheryl Crow butchers Begin the Beguine with modern belting rather than melancholy precision.

At other times, good performances are hindered by Winkler's misguided vision. Seeing Lemar, an African-American, performing What Is This Thing Called Love? riding a Venetian gondola, and Diana Krall's Peggy Lee impression doing Just One of Those Things, are two especially jarring moments, reminding us that this is, after all, a movie, and not a good one. Fantasy and reality don't just collide in De-Lovely, they disintegrate.

A few numbers nail the proper mood. Natalie Cole's link to Cole Porter's era through her father, Nat King Cole, wonderfully influences her climactic Ev'ry Time You Say Goodbye. Robbie Williams' turn as a singing waiter doing It's De-Lovely is a highlight, and one of the few times when Cocks successfully weaves plot into rhythm. Alanis Morissette gets the most screen time, costume changes and character development singing Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love).

And even if it's accurate, Kline's imitation of Porter's poor singing voice is irritating when he's composing or crooning to Linda. Don't fib about the composer's weakness but don't rely upon that shaky talent so much. Otherwise, Kline's performance is commendable when it isn't abridged by Winkler's hopscotch template.

Soon De-Lovely settles into the worst kind of musical biography pattern: "And then I wrote this song, and then I wrote that one." It might satisfy if the backstories to the melodies weren't so redundant. Names are dropped as abruptly as the subplots involving them: Irving Berlin, Louis B. Mayer, Nelson Eddy, etc. If younger viewers don't know who they are, De-Lovely does little to inform them.

The final act of De-Lovely succumbs to Winkler's toxic game plan: When Porter stops making hits and chasing men, the movie stops entertaining. A horse-riding accident and Linda's terminal illness set the stage for sentimental scenes that might work if they fit the rest of the film. A musical finale - the most obvious lift from All That Jazz - is either tasteless or trite, depending on how one feels about the conventional deathbed scenes preceding it.

De-Lovely plays like a cabaret review rather than a motion picture, a sublime collection of songs linked by scripted banter barely scratching the surface of its subject. Not delightful, not delicious, just disappointing.


Grade: C-

Director: Irwin Winkler

Cast: Kevin Kline, Ashley Judd, Jonathan Pryce, Allan Corduner, Keith Allen, Alanis Morissette, Robbie Williams, Sheryl Crow, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Natalie Cole

Screenplay: Jay Cocks

Rating: PG-13; sexual situations, profanity

Running time: 125 min.

[Last modified July 14, 2004, 12:22:47]

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