In the homestretch of Irwin Winkler's folly of a film about Cole Porter's life, the songster leans over to wife Linda Lee after previewing the highly fictionalized Night and Day and comments that if he can survive this movie, he can survive anything. Lucky for him, he didn't have to sit through De-Lovely.

What is it with Hollywood? The cringe-worthy 1946 Porter profile Night and Day was directed by Michael Curtiz, starred Cary Grant and offered more than three parts fantasy to less than one part biography. De-Lovely doesn't feel much more real and, at two grinding hours, adds interminability to injury. Porter's life was like the lyrics he wrote -- one big irresponsible, irrepressible ode to the joy and excesses of love, obsession and sex. How does such a surfeit of the poetic become such a slave to the prosaic?

In De-Lovely's case, the process begins with an over-thought but underdeveloped script. Writer Jay Cocks, whose previous works include the truly fine The Age of Innocence and the occasionally brilliant Gangs of New York, sets De-Lovely up for failure with his sophomoric, show-within-a-show construction. The film first joins Porter (Kevin Kline) in his geezer days, seated at his piano in a dark, lonely apartment. He is soon swept away to a theater (of his imagination?) by the enigmatic, intrusive stranger Gabe (Jonathan Pryce), who turns out to be a cross between the host of This Is Your Life and the Ghost of Christmas Past. Cocks periodically returns to this psychic screening room to allow for Gabe's obtuse observations and the occasional show-stopping number -- a device that carves up the rest of what passes for Porter's life story and is always an annoying interruption.

Annoying only in the sense of here-we-go-again, since the characterizations of Cole, Linda and those lucky few who surrounded them are never fully realized. Cole and Linda enjoyed a complicated, unconventional relationship -- a passionate friendship, more than a grand love affair, really, a messy marriage of convenience and affection. But Cocks achieves none of that complexity, putting sketches on screen instead of human beings.

The actors share the blame. Stilted and obvious dialogue is delivered as though it were as precious as Porter's own wit, and don't even ask about chemistry. Ashley Judd's smug, affected performance makes Linda insufferable. She mostly mewls on about the importance of Cole's music-with-a-capital-M, eyes dewy and head thrown worshipfully back like a post-accident Isadora Duncan. Kline's vacant Porter strokes her cheek, continuously marveling at her beauty, which must mean that she is his one consuming love, right? Wrong.

De-Lovely purports to be the whole truth about Porter, and it bests Night and Day by acknowledging his bisexuality, but only just. When Robert Browning wrote of a certain duchess that "she liked whate'er / She looked on, and her looks went everywhere," he could have been talking about Porter. But that sense of sexual freedom is treated with kid gloves in this film. For a man for whom passion was so obviously a passion, Kline's Porter is reduced to chaste close-mouthed kisses and longing looks at lovers or to awkward, sexless embraces of his wife. Where is the man of experience who could write the tactile, carnal "I've Got You Under My Skin"?

He only appears once, as an invigorated Kline charismatically coaxes Jack, a frustrated young singer (and future lover) through the difficult "Night and Day" by explaining its hounding, heartbeat rhythm and its lyrical philosophy of obsessing and letting go all at the same time. The scene is De-Lovely's most sensual and definitely its most notable (an obvious improvement over the first film's tortured portrayal of a dour Grant lifelessly taking the cues of the room he happens to be sitting in -- clock, rain -- to write his masterpiece).

But it's still only a momentary respite from the film's primary problem, which is that Cocks and Winkler seem to expect the audience to view Porter's encounters with men as less fulfilling than his lifelong attachment to his wife, a terrible simplification. The result is a lopsided encomium of a love affair we haven't believed in from the very beginning. In stark contrast, writer-director Christopher Hampton's 1995 film Carrington portrays the equally odd and sexually intricate alliance of artist Dora Carrington (Emma Thompson) and author Lytton Strachey (Jonathan Pryce) with a striking sense of humanity and emotional depth. The menage of Hampton's lean script, Thompson's fatal fragility and Pryce's louche elegance makes that couple's peculiar bond tangible. Exactly the kind of action De-Lovely needs.

Into the middle of this slog parades a musical who's who (Robbie Williams, Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow, Elvis Costello) to offer only fair to middling renditions of Porter's greatest tunes and an inordinate amount of mugging for the camera. Production designer Eve Stewart and costume designer Janty Yates perform admirably, so the movie is prettier than most. But when it comes to illuminating the man whose melodies were as witty as his words, De-Lovely hardly delivers.

Hold your applause: Not even the poetry of Cole Porter can save Irwin Winkler's De-Lovely, which stars Ashley Judd and Kevin Kline.
  • Hold your applause: Not even the poetry of Cole Porter can save Irwin Winkler's De-Lovely, which stars Ashley Judd and Kevin Kline.

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