Director: Irwin Winkler. Cast: Kevin Kline, Ashley Judd, Jonathan Pryce, Kevin McNally, Sandra Nelson, Richard Dillane, Allan Corduner, Keith Allen, Peter Polycarpou, John Barrowman, Kevin McKidd, Edward Baker-Duly, James Wilby, Robbie Williams, Lemar, Elvis Costello, Alanis Morissette, Caroline O'Connor, Sheryl Crow, Mick Hucknall, Diana Krall, Vivian Green, Lara Fabian, Mario Frangoulis, Natalie Cole. Screenplay: Jay Cocks.

Here is a short list of things that, all else being equal, I prefer not to have in my movies:
That's a pretty formidable list of prejudices to take into De-Lovely, and if I hadn't had a chance to see the thing for free, I would have stayed away, crossing my fingers that the art directors or somebody didn't snag an Oscar nod next January (because I hate it when I miss an Oscar nominee). And isn't life just a funny thing, because I thought De-Lovely earned its name, elegant, emotional, and proudly sentimental without melting into mush. The story is indeed narrated from the point of view of the aged Cole Porter's rendezvous with Death's emissary, who must be a swishy kind of angel, or just a notably compassionate one, because he treats the fading composer to a Broadway-style reenactment of his whole life, mostly enacted by the real folks. As De-Lovely set up this device, the little Geiger counter in my head that's always measuring for signs of oncoming treacle was going absolutely insane. But of all people, Kline proves a savior, eschewing the temptation to play Cole as a saint or a cad or a protean figure of the art inside all of us, and instead he gives us a debonair gentleman who's also a little full of himself, a gentle charmer who gets snippy the minute something isn't working.

During the main action of De-Lovely, when Jay Cocks' screenplay takes us through the looking-glass of the theatrical conceit and basically delivers a routine biopic, we get the picture immediately that Cole is one of those hypocrites who covers up his wish to control everything and be the center of everyone's attention, precisely by projecting a disinterested air of casual genius and by lavishing attention on others in a way that inevitably reflects well on himself. This is a tricky way to live life that routinely yields a few hot moments and long periods of ease, but it always goes wrong, and for Cole and his wife Linda (Judd), it does indeed go pretty wrong. Not disastrously, but enough: Linda's intention of tolerating Cole's non-monogamous, bisexual appetites really is too much to concede, although thankfully, the tone of the movie manages to view Cole's narcissism and Linda's willing self-martyrdom as human failings, not as sins or moral parables. De-Lovely includes enough of the Porters' private strife that we understand it was there, and we gather the basic reasons why, but it also devotes itself to reminding us of how much Cole delighted his audiences (including himself), how joyously he lived (until the final, severe years of his life, succinctly but powerfully evoked here), and how beautiful was his art.

There is just no denying these songs, and though the decision to cast popular entertainers of our own moment as the crooners and chanteuses bringing the Porter catalogue to life is almost certainly a concession to middle-class ticket-buyers, the majority of these recitals go swimmingly. Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morissette, and Robbie Williams all look like they're h having a ball while tackling something they know to be difficult, and that's exactly where these performers should be in relation to the material. It also seems to be the film's best guess at the ethos of Porter's life—having a ball while tackling something difficult—so the tenor of big talent getting pushed out of their normal range works just fine. The less well-known singers fare at least as well, especially Caroline O'Connor, the tango-dancing vixen from Moulin Rouge, who nails "Anything Goes" with Merman-esque pizzazz. John Barrowman also has a minor triumph (at least to my totally untrained ears) with "Night and Day," a performance that is diegetically incorporated into the film such that Kline's composer is trying to coax Barrowman's reluctant and frustrated tenor into the right mood for singing the song. The two actors make this scene an exquisite moment within the overall structure of De-Lovely, infusing the process of artistic creation and expressive mastery with a blooming aura of erotic interest. There is nothing coy about the performances or the hypnotized camerawork. The rest of the film oscillates between, on the one hand, a predictable imbalance in depicting Cole's straight marriage compared to his same-sex affairs and, on the other, an admirable insistence that Cole's sexuality may well have exceeded simple and political categories of gay and straight; the purity of Kline's and Barrowman's central bit of musical and sensual rapport is enough to confirm that De-Lovely's head and heart are both in the right place, wherever that actually is.

That's pretty much how it goes for De-Lovely, dodging between insight and impenetrability, inspiration and cliché, elegance and prurience. Though the framing device may seem like a cop-out means for excusing any possible detour into fantasy, reality, or self-censorship, the successive returns to the old Cole observing this revue of his life actually do lend a strong point-of-view to what would inevitably be a conjectural and self-involved storyline. The lighting and design teams manage to achieve the required elegance while preserving the feel of a really good dress rehearsal; we never forget, exactly, that everyone on screen is in costume and loosely in character, which is what this script necesssitates. The editor shows a marvelous instinct for when to bring us close into Cole's face and when to keep us away from him, so that several broadly written scenes of courtship and conflict are saved by their delicate balance of Cole's and Linda's perspectives: it's part of why the film ends up feeling so compassionate toward both, even as we realize the contributions of each toward their shared moments of misery. Of course, there's not much to cut on or cut to if the performance isn't there. Had Kline given less of himself to the part, the movie would certainly not have worked, but the subtle detailing of his facial expressions, the way he self-consciously wears his clothes and adjusts his posture, the way he warbles Porter's songs with the out-of-tune mediocrity of most great composers—all of this makes Porter a believable and well-rounded figure, perfectly integrated into the script's particular vision. For her part, Judd didn't quite bowl me over, but she does just fine, and when she and Kline share a final duet of "In the Still of the Night," this big-hearted movie finds its fitting close, both soaring and sad. De-Lovely is a film I can imagine the Porters enjoying, and also one that might occasionally make them uncomfortable. It isn't great cinema, but it's deft popular art, and as Cole famously said, it does get under your skin. Grade: B

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actress (Musical/Comedy): Ashley Judd
Best Actor (Musical/Comedy): Kevin Kline

Other Awards:
Satellite Awards: Best Art Direction

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