Cole Porter was one of America's most clever songwriters, but you wouldn't know it from De-Lovely, which gives no insight into the man, and ruins his music with artifice.
Loaded with contradictions, Porter (Kevin Kline) is a small-town Midwesterner who becomes a Parisian bon vivant, an openly gay man who maintains a relatively happy marriage to his wife Linda Thomas (Ashley Judd), and a gifted tunesmith who actually enjoys slumming in Hollywood. But when a riding accident leaves him crippled, he becomes increasingly bitter and lonely, right up until his death in 1964. The movie opens with a ridiculous framing device, after Porter's death. He is greeted by the angel Gabriel (Jonathan Pryce), who begins a staged re-creation of his life featuring his various friends and foes, while Porter rails at their deaf images incessantly, like Ebeneezer Scrooge confronting his past. To make matters worse, Kline's old man makeup is so creepily extra-terrestrial it makes him look like Mandy Patinkin in Alien Nation. It is with great relief that we then cut to glorious 1930s Paris, as Kline meets Judd's lovely ex-pat divorcee, and they embark on their very odd alliance. At first she condones his affairs, even arranges them, but soon his indiscretion and rampant promiscuity threaten to destroy their marriage.
Kline plays Porter as an unabashed sexual predator for the first hour of the movie, seemingly unaffected by the hurt he causes his wife. And in the final act, predictably, Kline strains for pathos as Porter becomes old and bitter. Kline's acting baggage catches up with him
here, to ill effect. He's been arching his eyebrows and delivering preposterous dialogue in witty deadpan style so well for so many years, that when he consults a doctor on a leg operation, one half expects his character to request a brain transplant a la Dr. Rod Randall in Soapdish. He's already got the gold man that Jim Carrey covets (for A Fish Called Wanda). But his ''serious'' turns (this, My Life as a House, The Emperor's Club) are just painful. Judd fares slightly better as his muse, confidante, groupie and pimp. Unlike so many actresses, she isn't overbearingly modern. And even her affectations, like inserting an accented French word into each line, fit the character. This could have been the role that returned Judd to the earlier promise of her work in Ruby in Paradise and/or Heat--if it wasn't constantly interrupted by the framing device and the music.
Speaking of which, rather than allowing the power of the music itself to illustrate Porter's wondrous gifts, the director (and maybe some MGM marketing suits) decided to use modern pop singers to sing the songs in elaborate musical numbers. It's like watching a Mad TV parody of American Dreams. Alanis Morissette, dressed as a flapper, warbles
''Let's Do It'' as if it's ''You Oughta Know.'' Sheryl Crow shrieks ''Begin the Beguine'' as if her leg is caught in a bear trap. And in a movie that tries so hard to convince us of the gay lyrical subtext (OK, we get it), what else are we to make of the musical finale, ''Blow Gabriel Blow''? Irwin Winkler should just stop trying to direct. He is one of the most acclaimed producers in Hollywood (Rocky, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, among countless others), yet as a director he has a knack for taking listless subjects (Senate hearings, the Internet) and making them even more boring. With De-Lovely he goes from the mundane to the ridiculous. When Porter falls off the horse, Winkler cross-cuts to Linda in Paris, sniffing the air as if she can somehow sense his danger. What is she, his twin as well? The direction is so ham-fisted that when a character coughs, you know instantly it is implying a painful rheumatic death to come, if in the distant future. Even the death of a small child is milked shamelessly for drama, since the script (Jay Cocks) provides none. If there is any reason to watch the movie, it's the costumes (Giorgio Armani) and the vivid re-creations of pre-War Paris, Venice, Broadway and Hollywood. If only we could stay there. Just as we settle comfortably into the period, old man Porter returns, raging at the darkness, his prosthetic skin threatening to melt off and go flying in every direction.
If you're interested in the life of Cole Porter, read a biography. And if you're interested in his music, buy a CD.