- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 1, 2004

“De-Lovely” is the new but far from improved version of a biographical testimonial to Cole Porter, the unconventional composer, whose brilliance coexisted with furtive homosexual hedonism.

The most hilarious delusion shared by screenwriter Jay Cocks and director Irwin Winkler is that they’ve faced up to Mr. Porter’s scandalous side, in contrast to “Night and Day,” the glamorous 1946 whitewash that starred Cary Grant and needed to remain respectfully oblivious about the subject’s private life.

“De-Lovely” isn’t a smidge less stilted or sappy than “Night and Day.” It’s just incapable of comparably diverting glamour and professionalism. (Mr. Winkler is unwary enough to include an enormous close-up of Mr. Grant in the Porter role.)

The emotional core of the new movie is supposed to be the sustained devotion of Mr. Porter (1891-1964) and his socialite wife Linda Lee (1883-1954), portrayed by a bravely smiling but often melancholy Ashley Judd. Their fashionable marriage of convenience began in Paris in 1919 and endured until Mrs. Porter’s death from emphysema.

Linda was a Kentucky girl who married into wealth, and Cole was an Indiana boy who inherited a tidy fortune from his maternal grandfather.

In certain respects the partners transcended conspicuous expenditure and status despite being fixtures of international cafe society. They were admirably tenacious in the face of injury and illness.

Mr. Porter’s legs were fractured in a riding accident in 1937, but he remained professionally adept and inspired for another two decades, a period that encompassed his greatest Broadway show and song score, “Kiss Me Kate.”

It’s not unthinkable that the Porters could be successfully embroidered as the couple who had everything — except things that come naturally to ordinary couples. Sadly, the filmmakers place a huge obstacle in the path of life-affirming sentiment by insisting on a cumbersome, stale, post-mortem framing device.

As “De-Lovely” starts, an aged Mr. Porter (Mr. Kline, who never resembles the puckish, diminutive original) is confronted by Jonathan Pryce as an eternal escort called Gabe.

Before a merciful deliverance from body to soul is permitted, Mr. Porter must witness a theatrical recap of highlights from his life. As this footlight version of “This Is Your Life” pretends to materialize, you wish that the filmmakers would simply dive into flashbacks and get on with the show.

But once that happens, disillusion abounds. Mr. Kline can’t seem to sing on key, or endearingly off. (A Porter recording of “You’re the Top” accompanying the end credits preserves the authentic voice, a belated reminder of what the movie fails to simulate fondly.)

One production number after another stifles the songs in cringe-making notions of gaiety or high life: a masquerade ball for “Let’s Misbehave,” for example, or a Venetian gondola excursion for “What is This Thing Called Love.”

Even an interlude that works on its own terms — Mr. Kline tutoring a shaky stage juvenile on “Night and Day” — seems out of whack, because one associates the theatrical and film origins of the song with Fred Astaire.

Several well-meaning pop singers try their luck with Porter classics, but the settings frequently leave gauche and distorting impressions even if the vocals are acceptable (Sheryl Crow on “Begin the Beguine,” for example).

More often than not, the settings are downright excruciating; a lampoon of Louis B. Mayer and the whole Metro lot with “Be a Clown” makes a clamorous bid for infamy.

If the price of an “authentic” Cole Porter biopic is the blundering, lackluster consistency of “De-Lovely,” I’ll take vintage Hollywood idealization.

*1/2

TITLE: “De-Lovely”

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional sexual candor and innuendo, involving allusions to homosexual liaisons; fleeting profanity and depictions of grave injury or illness)

CREDITS: Directed by Irwin Winkler. Written by Jay Cocks. Music and lyrics by Cole Porter. Cinematography by Tony Pierce-Roberts. Choreography by Francesca Jaynes.

RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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