Saturday, July 03, 2004


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 July 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #1 (first-run)

Cole Porter is a difficult subject for a biography. He has no humble beginning, he is so touched by genius that one cannot watch him struggle to create his art, and he was often a first-class jerk to the person who loved him most. He is, however, a fabulous subject for a musical, as he comes complete with wit, charm, a true love, wonderful settings, and dozens of fantastic songs.

Mostly, the film realizes this, and even comments on it. De-Lovely opens with a sort of angel played by Johnathan Pryce calling on Porter (Kevin Kline) to show him a musical based on his life. There's a great deal of wit in these scenes between Kline (in better-than-usual old-age makeup) and Pryce, as they make little comments about the form - how times have changed and the composer is no longer in charge, or how, when Porter says it's too early for another song, "Gabe" says that if he could say what he means as well as he could sing it, they wouldn't use one. This framing device also works to give a modern audience used to a more literal style of filmmaking a bit of a buffer zone: No, these people didn't really burst into song in the middle of their lives; we're watching people watch a sort of play, and they're singing in the play.

As an aside, it's somewhat unfortunate that the straight-ahead musical seems to be something of a lost art. Chicago presented its musical numbers as dream sequences; De-Lovely goes it one better and makes the whole movie a dream sequence of sorts. Of recent movies, Moulin Rouge comes the closest to the classic style, where the audience understood that this wasn't strictly literal (well, that and The Happiness of the Katakuris). I don't know whether this is a failure of filmmakers, the audience, or just that between us we're out of practice and need to re-establish this meme.

During the "up" periods, De-Lovely is great fun. There are beautiful sets, toe-tapping performances of Porter's songs, and a nice chemistry between Kline and Ashley Judd as his wife and muse, Linda Lee. She is realistic about what their marriage is; she makes a comment that Cole probably likes men more than she does (her abusive first marriage probably contributing to that). There's clear affection between the two, but also a sadness on her part - she doesn't expect him to share her bed, but she wants to come first.

That's a source of frustration for the movie - Cole never seems to learn that, until a horse-riding accident leaves him crippled. That's a symptom of a greater problem - the film never shows Porter as having much of a heart until his old age, as he learns Linda's health may be worse than his, or as he watches his life played out on the stage. He and Linda are obviously idle rich through the film's first half, and there's never much impetus for Porter to become more than a talented amateur. The elderly Porter smiles about all the fun he had, but there's never much but fun as a motivation. And when the accident makes playing the piano and writing music become hard work, it's difficult to see why Kline's Cole Porter would push on; there's nothing but "have fun now" to his character.

The performances are decent. Aside from the musical "guests", Kline, Judd, and Pryce are the only stars, which is fine - this is about the Porters, and we don't need anyone distracting from Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd. Judd is quite good as Linda, looking fabulous in her period dress and occasionally showing what might have finally pushed Porter to success. She walks a very careful line, making Linda a strong personality but not a "power behind the throne" type. Pryce gives just what is needed as the "host", and manages well in his musical number.

Kevin Kline... Oh, man, Kevin Kline would have perfect for this ten or fifteen years ago. I'm not a big fan of musicals as a genre, but it is a crying shame that their almost complete absence from film during Kline's career has deprived us of possibly many great performances. Kline's voice is still passable, and he's still fairly spry, but he is possibly too old to play Porter as a young man. It's not quite intrusive, but it's not quite right, either. He and Ashley Judd don't quite look believable together until they've both had their hair dyed gray and started putting on the prosthetic cosmetics.

There's plenty to like about De-Lovely. The music is great, as are Kline and Judd. Kline and director Irwin Winkler somehow manage to make Porter a sympathetic character toward the end, despite giving him a lot of "spoiled, selfish rich guy" baggage. It's a near thing, though, and I have my suspicions that a good deal of the audience will look at the latter half of the movie as Porter getting what he deserves.

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