It could have been De-Lovelier

Wednesday, 28 July 2004 — 10:53am | Film, Full reviews

Irwin Winkler’s De-Lovely beckons one to draw comparisons to a very odd assortment of movies, a selection where “Anything Goes”. Begrudgingly and with an asterisk or two along for the ride, it can be described as a conventional bio-pic about the life of the legendary songwriter Cole Porter, not dissimilar to the post-Casablanca movie musicals of Michael Curtiz such as I’ll See You In My Dreams (a straightforward look at the rise and fall of Gus Kahn starring Danny Thomas and Doris Day) and Night and Day (a sensationalized portrait of Mr. Porter to which De-Lovely makes some reference). Amidst its traditional aesthetics, cinematography and story structure a part of it wants to be more; it takes the straightforward biography and frames it as sometimes a stage musical, sometimes a film that an older, reflective Cole Porter watches and criticizes whilst sitting beside its director, played by Jonathan Pryce. Here we are reminded of the real-life Harvey Pekar observing his filmed biography, last year’s splendiferous American Splendor, right there in the movie itself; that’s what De-Lovely intermittently tries to be, but it falls a ways short. Where it most excels is in its main selling point, the performances of many Cole Porter favourites embedded within – and even there, it’s no Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

De-Lovely is not at all a bad film, but the recurring theme in this review is that it sets its own ambitions, and thus the expectations of the audience, at a standard too high for itself to achieve. You can imagine the pitch: a postmodern arthouse Cole Porter musical biography featuring cameos by contemporary recording artists, period costumes designed by Giorgio Armani, and a cutting look at repressed homosexuality in the underground of the forties! Looks like an Oscar-sweeping formula, doesn’t it? Even when you compartmentalize the work into its components, everything looks praiseworthy; replacing Night and Day‘s Cary Grant and Alexis Smith as Cole and Linda Lee Porter are Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd, who both look and feel the parts as they age decades together over the course of the piece. Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts paints a moving picture of the exquisite sets and period aesthetics with a vibrant colour palette that exudes a constant sense of warmth. The music is a guaranteed seal of quality from the get-go. Look at this movie in snippets, and (as the song goes) it’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s de-lovely.

Then the audience actually sees the film in its entirety, and a major problem surfaces: the screenplay. The culprit is not the dialogue itself, which is likable if never quotable, but structure. De-Lovely runs for a standard 125 minutes, but feels a lot longer because of a lack of narrative drive. Instead of delineating conflict-resolution patterns into plot threads that guide the audience from one scene to the next, Cole Porter’s story is told in clumps of singular moods and events like a biography of the dullest sort: one that retells, but does not synthesize, and thus has very little to say about its subject. Sure, we have some resurfacing character dynamics, like how Linda manages to stand back and ignore Cole’s latent homosexuality, but these would be more aptly labeled character statics – descriptions of traits rather than evolutions of personality. Conflict isn’t conflict if it sits around and never goes anywhere.

In the end, the whole experience is a lot like flipping through a photo album, only in true Harry Potter fashion, the photos move. This is the part where Cole meets Linda Lee. This is the part where Cole goes to MGM and starts writing songs for movies. This is the part where Kiss Me, Kate opens and brings down the house. It’s all fine and good until you realize that you are flipping through said album for two hours, all the while not knowing how far you are from the last page.

As Alfred Hitchcock once said, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” Somebody in the De-Lovely process should really read up on his Hitchcock, because the dry spells between musical numbers and performances could use some serious trimming. Given that the highlight of his resumé the similarly problematic Gangs of New York, that somebody is probably screenwriter Jay Cocks.

But aside from the major annoyance that it is just plain hard to sit through, De-Lovely is a great movie. Kevin Kline’s starring performance is arguably a career best. He plays, nay, becomes Cole Porter young and old, and both with a convincing sense of humanity. When committing his latest hit-song-in-the-making to the piano, he sings along with a subdued, only marginally in-tune voice true to the form of a composer who writes with the knowledge that his work is to be bestowed upon a more talented performer to come. In the theatrical dreamland of De-Lovely, these talented performers include the likes of Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Robbie Williams and Natalie Cole; even Alanis Morissette and Sheryl Crow do not seem out of place.

In spite of all of the screenplay’s difficulties in negotiating the gulfs between one chapter of the story and the next, the visual handling of transitions from scene to scene is something to be admired – particularly the segues back and forth between the Chicago-esque onstage sub-universe and the empty rehearsal hall where the old Cole Porter sits beside the Jonathan Pryce character, like an invisible Scrooge with the Ghost of Christmas Past. Sometimes, a roaring musical number will disassemble its periphery like a fading reverie; at one point, the camera pulls out of a vintage film to reveal the darkened theatre once again, similar to the device employed in Moulin Rouge! as the curtain falls on the final shot of Toulouse-Lautrec singing “Nature Boy”. Seamless pans and rotations take us from the composer at work or an actor in rehearsal to a full performance; best of all, this display of technical prowess is subtle, and fits in so comfortably that it may easily go unnoticed. These spurts of dynamism are hidden further by the fact that within the scenes themselves, De-Lovely is very traditional, and the camera tends to sit around. It is no surprise that in one brief sequence shot in monochrome, there are few hints that this movie was not made decades ago, as its vintage feel is quite authentic.

With glorious production values and a songbook more than capable of carrying much of everything else on its back, De-Lovely is a lot better in parts than it is as a whole. As social commentary on buried matters of sexual orientation in decades past (which, to be fair, it never makes that big a stab at being), it is far from Far From Heaven. The screen story is a scatterplot of independent scenarios with few connections, and therefore little narrative drive. This tale of the man who wrote “You’re the Top” is a lot closer to the middle of the pack.

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