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De-Lovely, Irwin Winkler’s elaborately modern Cole Porter biopic, is openly gay and overwhelmingly glum. Never less than self-conscious, more conceptual than Moulin Rouge, the movie has the old, bitter Cole (Kevin Kline) kibitz his life story as it is rehearsed onstage for his private edification under the haughty direction of the angel Gabe (Jonathan Pryce).
Winkler focuses on Porter’s marriage (love? money? convenience?) to the wealthy socialite Linda Lee Thomas (Ashley Judd), and for a time, De-Lovely seeks to infuse their eyes-open romance with some vague memory of Top Hat—an enterprise akin to the re-bubblification of flat champagne. The disconnect is particularly acute when Winkler begins evoking ’20s sophistication with anachronistic interpolations from the 1956 movie High Society.
Kline is confidently bouncy and blithe as the young, pomaded Porter; Judd looks upon his antics with a fixed grin of worldly tolerance. What will it take to wipe the smile off her pretty face? A lot: Winkler seldom fails to wring bathos from pathos, not least in his musical stagings. Spike Jones or “Weird Al” Yankovic could scarcely have been more jarring than the gaggle of preening pop stars invited to camp on the classics—the nadir being Sheryl Crow’s catatonic “Begin the Beguine.” Other songs have thematic associations: Vulgar mogul Louis B. Mayer (Peter Polycarpou) prances through “Be a Clown,” “Love for Sale” is heard at a posh party full of hunky Hollywood hustlers, and Natalie Cole shows up to warble “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” as Linda lies on her deathbed.
Winkler takes care to quote the famously bad 1946 Cole Porter story, Night and Day, but if that was a minor tragedy, his remake is closer to unfunny farce. Winkler’s affection seems evident; De-Lovely is sincere folly. Still, as noted by Oscar Wilde (the Cole Porter of his day), each man kills the thing he loves—and the coward does so with a kiss.