Night and day? This isn't the one

Nothing `De-Lovely' about this latest Cole Porter story

July 16, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Why do moviemakers keep trying to turn the story of the brilliant, sybaritic songwriter Cole Porter into a tribute to married love and devotion? Night and Day (1946) did it with Cary Grant as a heterosexual Cole and Alexis Smith as his high-society wife, Linda. Now De-Lovely does it with Kevin Kline playing the factual gay Cole and Ashley Judd a Linda who accepts his homosexuality and focuses on the non-erotic portions of his life.

In the flagrantly bad and fallacious old movie, Linda can't save Cole from his workaholism until a horse-riding accident crushes his legs; she abandons him, then returns after he proves his bravery and seriousness by standing on his own two feet (albeit, with canes). In De-Lovely, Linda leaves Cole because he's stunningly reckless about his cruising. The horse mishap brings them back together: she takes charge of his treatment and prods him to compose again. She's partly a caregiver and partly a moneyed muse.

This new version may be closer to the Cole Porter biography, but it's hardly any more true to life. There is no life in this movie. It's a brittle contraption of a biopic. In the baby-Brechtian framing device, a sepulchral playwright-biographer named Gabe (Jonathan Pryce), who turns out to be the archangel Gabriel, organizes the high and low times of Cole Porter into a spectacle for the moribund Cole's own delectation.

The script and direction sabotage Kline with their combined confusion and self-consciousness. It's a pop-art crime. An actor who brought zest to the homosexual who doesn't know he is one in In & Out can't even cut loose as a gleefully unbuttoned gay artist-entertainer in De-Lovely.

The movie's rationale for Porter's marriage to Linda is that he hungered for all kinds of love - which should be just the right explanation. But, until his accident, their bond plays out as a clash of wills. She wants to be his creative mistress and soul mate, he wants her to be his daytime domestic goddess. (I'm surprised the filmmakers didn't include the Porter standard "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To.")

Kline never conveys uncontrollable appetite, even when Cole goes trawling for male flesh. He doesn't have the scenes or the lines. Screenwriter Jay Cocks makes a staid proclamation out of Porter's emotional omnivorousness. Then director Irwin Winkler transforms it into a dirge.

With songs performed as centerpieces in tableaux from Porter's life, or as production numbers from his plays and movies, or as counterpoint to archangel Gabe, few of the performers (including Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morrisette) have a chance to build a tune to a satisfying finish. The glittering exception is Vivian Green, who delivers a sensational late-night-blues rendition of "Love for Sale."

There's little zing to this film's Roaring Twenties and white-telephone Thirties, whether in decadent Paris and Venice, sophisticated Broadway or gloriously vulgar Hollywood. And there's no follow-through to the film's various notions of love, marriage and family. In some ways, this movie proves to be even sillier than Night and Day: Cole sees his friends Gerald and Sara Murphy frolicking with their son Patrick and decides he and Linda ought to have a baby. (Later, Linda endures a miscarriage as a doleful "Begin the Beguine" plays out on the soundtrack.) A revelation in Frieda and Twisted, Judd is deft here when she has something to play, like Linda's protectiveness. Too much of the time, though, she and Kline get lost in the fog of a marital cold war.

What's most frustrating is that if a latter-day Bob Fosse did the Cole Porter story as the tale of an unrepentant aesthete and hedonist who in adversity found a spine of steel, it would be emotionally and aesthetically intoxicating. What's scandalous about De-Lovely is that its quality of giddiness is strained.

De-Lovely

Starring Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd

Directed by Irwin Winkler

Released by MGM

Rated PG-13

Time 125 minutes

Sun Score *1/2

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