It's a crime that the world has had to wait 20 years to see Kevin Kline in another big-screen musical, and when it finally gets here it's De-Lovely, a painstaking but glum Cole Porter biopic that leaves the singing mostly to others. Kline, like Steve Martin, is one of the few contemporary stars who could've cut it on the MGM backlot during the 1950s' musical heyday. Here, as Porter, he can't even put the extent of his prodigious musical-comedy gifts to use: when he does get a number, he under-sings to mimic the composer's frail vocals. It's like putting Gene Kelly in a body cast.
And yet the movie remains watchable, even moving, given Kline's rapt performance. Borrowing a device from All That Jazz, the ambitious De-Lovely has the aged composer watching his life unfold as a stage revue, accompanied by a celestial director. The connecting thread is Porter's wife, Linda (played by Ashley Judd, who grows into the role). A Southern belle and abused divorcée who became his spouse and sometime muse, she remained married to him for 35 years, even though he preferred to sleep with men. Despite his gay philandering, she stayed with him even after a riding accident left him in unceasing pain for the rest of their lives.
Unlike the 1948 biopic Night and Day, which the movie mocks, De-Lovely at least acknowledges the complexity of the Porters' convenient marriage and of the songwriter's sexuality. That doesn't make it any less hidebound as screen biography. The movie reduces Porter's life to the usual mile-markers of success and sorrow, from Broadway triumphs to tragedy, all made to correspond too neatly with whatever Porter standard is playing on the soundtrack.
The songs are glorious, the performances variable. Pop singers from Elvis Costello and Diana Krall to Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morissette show up every few scenes to take a stab, and their renditions range from forced gaiety to cowed discomfort. Even when they're good, like Natalie Cole doing "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," they don't provide the expressive release you want from a musical. It's a different story when Kline sings, even at half strength. Porter's wittiest lyrics are what you wish you'd said at a party, not devised on the ride home, and Kline delivers the barbed non sequiturs of "Well, Did You Evah!" as if they'd sprung from his head. In the movie's best scene, Porter teaches a Broadway pretty-boy how to sing "Night and Day," and Kline makes the performance a heady synthesis of instruction and seduction. Even in the scenes of Porter in leg braces and a wheelchair, he manages to suggest a glancing wit and a keenly missed soft-shoe agility.
Kline is so good, and the subject so rich, that it's a shame the movie is mostly the uneven execution of a terrific outline. Watching De-Lovely, with its parade of pop performers awkwardly framed, I couldn't help but wish for another directora Stanley Donen or Martin Scorsese. This is somewhat unfair: Director Irwin Winkler got this difficult movie made, and his care shines through in every elegantly lit frame. But when the subject is Cole Porter's effervescent, seemingly effortless songs, careful is a weak substitute for carefree.
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