3 stars (out of 4)
In the world of popular love songs, brevity is the soul of wit--and so is Cole Porter, subject of the new movie "De-Lovely" and the man who wrote that delirious paean "You're an O'Neill drama; you're Whistler's mama; you're camembert" to an imaginary sweetheart.
But--heart and soul of pop-song grace and wit that he was--Porter is a hard man to capture on screen. And so is the personally ill-fated "trip to the moon on gossamer wings" that was his life, for everyone it seems, but star Kevin Kline. He catches, without appearing to try, that blissful, tart mix of sophistication and gaiety (in both senses) that marked the real Porter.
Producer-director Irwin Winkler and his screenwriter, Jay Cocks, have a sometimes exhilarating, sometimes stumbling whack at it, though. Surrounded by technicians and artists for whom the moon and gossamer wings are no sweat, they reimagine Porter as an old man watching himself. And what they show is the Indiana-born student of Yale, Harvard and the French Foreign Legion whose dazzling gift for mating poetic and ironic words to sensuous music made him a mainstay of the Broadway-Hollywood '20s-'50s Golden Age of musical theater but whose double life of outward marital bliss and secret homosexual amours brought him joy, chaos and sadness.
We see "De-Lovely's" Porter as a dying old man summoned magically to a tiny theater and stage by an urbane director (Jonathan Pryce), who ruthlessly presents for this audience of one the musical comedy-tragedy of Porter's life, played by the people who lived it with him. There the old man sees, with increasing restiveness and sadness, where it all went right and wrong: the cocktail-party and dance-until-dawn world of his early successes, the backroom "love for sale" and Hollywood sell-outs of the second act and the inexorable illness and fatality of the third.
Accompanying him along most of the journey is wife Linda (Ashley Judd), presented as kind of socialite guardian angel, giving him the world (or at least Paris and Park Avenue) and asking from him only the discretion he can't provide.
"De-Lovely" is a far more knowing film than the famous but false 1946 Porter bio "Night and Day" directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Cary Grant, which avoided Porter's gay secret life. Despite its frankness and many resources, "De-Lovely's" lavish bio has a slightly hollow ring.
It's not a failure, but in some important senses, a miss. The movie almost makes it, despite a script that won't soar, not enough great dancing or singing and the overall rustiness of the Hollywood musical factory that used to turn out classics like "Singin' in the Rain" and Porter's "The Pirate" with all the "moments divine and raptures serene" you could want.
Kline, though, does give one of the great movie performances of the year so far. He creates a man who could have written those songs, from "Let's Do It" to "Everytime We Say Goodbye" to "Where is the Life That Late I Led." Even though Kline superficially looks and sounds wrong for the little Hoosier--too tall, too handsome, too sturdy, too healthy and way too good a singer--he makes the role his own. And he does it despite the fact that Cocks' script is sketchy and the movie itself not the sip of cinematic champagne we'd like it to be.
Cary Grant, of course, was miscast as Porter in the previous movie. In fact, in 1946 Porter's famous cruising companion Monty Woolley was miscast as Monty Woolley (played as a disturbingly smiley chap who talks about almost nothing but his own beard). Here, Allan Corduner plays Woolley, as a kind of botchy-sophisticate nemesis to Linda and though he's good enough, as is Judd as sweet Linda and Pryce as the theater director, Gabe--he doesn't expand the role the way Kline does.
The music becomes the second main pleasure of "De-Lovely" and it's hard not be entertained by two dozen of Cole's best, sung winningly, if not always brilliantly, by a company that includes Alanis Morissette, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow and (the best, fittingly) Natalie Cole. (Hearing them though, really makes you wish this movie had been made in the heyday of Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.)
The name Cole Porter remains a kind of a passkey to a vanished world of wit, elegance, irony and pop sensuality, and I only wish the movie had unlocked more doors, opened up more of that world. Sad as his life may have been, he was, after all--just like the nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire--the top.
Directed by Irwin Winkler; written by Jay Cocks; photographed by Tony Pierce-Roberts; edited by Julie Monroe; production designer, Eve Stewart; art director, John Hill; music and lyrics, Cole Porter; music arranger and producer, Stephen Endelman; produced by Irwin Winkler, Rob Cowan, Charles Winkler. An MGM release. opens Friday. Running time: 2:05. MPAA Rating: PG-13. (sexual content).
Cole Porter - Kevin KlineLinda Porter - Ashley JuddGabe - Jonathan PryceGerald Murphy - Kevin McNallyMonty Woolley - Allan CordunerSara Murphy - Sandra NelsonIrving Berlin - Keith AllenEdward Thomas - James WilbyCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times