directed by Irwin Winkler
(MGM, 2004)

De-Lovely is a Di-Saster, and I'm sure I'm not the first critic to use that unfortunate turn of phrase. Five minutes into it my wife and I looked at each other as though to reassure ourselves that the movie theatre we were in was indeed part of reality, and we had not slipped into some Bizarro world of alternate movie musicals.

The possibilities seemed endless -- a film biography about the finest composer of show tunes ever, Cole Porter, and his rich and sad life. True, it had been done before as Night & Day back in the '40s, but now the filmmakers could honestly confront Porter's bisexuality, his odd but loving arrangement with his wife Linda and his sad end. Add to the mix Kevin Kline, one of our finest actors, as Porter, and things seem promising indeed.

Then the movie begins. We are introduced to a clumsy and intrusive framing device, in which Porter, at the end of his life, is looking back on a show depicting it, with Jonathan Pryce as "The Director," who is also God or fate or the Ghost of Musicals Past, who informs Porter that the other people can't see or hear him. (If only the audience couldn't have heard some of the performances....) If the framing device could have been used only at the beginning and end, it might have been more acceptable, but Pryce and Old Porter (Kline in a makeup reminiscent of Ray Milland in Love Story) pop up throughout the film, kibitzing on events shown. The framing device is woefully inconsistent, with events sometimes seen as a live show, sometimes as a movie.

Further inconsistencies stem from the fact that the film occasionally decides to be a musical, with the cast of extras singing as a chorus behind Porter, Linda and whoever else suddenly pipes in with a line. The most egregious example of this is the "Be a Clown" number, in which Louis B. Mayer and his yes-people join Porter in song and dance on the MGM studio lot. Some may say it's zany; I say it's spinach and I say the hell with it.

The biggest sin committed by the film and its makers, however, is the stunt casting of current and supposedly hip pop singers to "reimagine" Cole Porter's classic standards. It's a mistake equal in scope to almost every production decision made in that other musical disaster, Showgirls. In a career-destroying appearance, Elvis Costello seems to be channeling '40s bandleader Kay Kyser during an epileptic seizure for his performance of "Let's Misbehave." His better half, Diana Krall (whose appeal I've never fathomed) butchers "Just One of Those Things" with a jerkily staccato treatment. Her "acting" as she nibbles Louis B. Mayer's ear is one of the worst cameos ever.

Sheryl Crow murders "Begin the Beguine" with cruel nasality, but the musical director is accessory before the fact by transposing the song into a minor key and shifting the melodic line enough to destroy the original chord progression and turning it into a fantasia upon "Begin the Beguine" rather than the song itself. The scene that follows shows Porter berating wife Linda for coming late to the opening by telling her that she missed the whole thing. "Lucky her," I muttered to my wife.

There are some sad missteps: tenor Mario Frangoulis singing "So in Love" in his lightest of tones rather than having a strong baritone tackle it, British R&B singer Lemar flimsily crooning "What is This Thing Called Love" while floating down a Venetian canal, and Robbie Williams' rabid assault of the title song. The nadir of the performances, however, is Alanis Morissette's, um ... unparalleled reading of "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)," which really deserves its own essay. Morissette's swooping, dipping, whining rendition is the most terrifying sound heard in a movie theatre since the first scream of Ridley Scott's Alien in 1979. Porter's clever lyrics are rendered nearly unintelligible, and one has the feeling that the real Porter would have ground Morissette's bones to make his bread. I know I wanted to.

A few performers acquit themselves admirably. Natalie Cole sings a sweet "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," Vivian Green does a suitable torchy "Love for Sale" and Caroline O'Connor's brassy voice is a valid stand-in for Ethel Merman's on "You're the Top." And Kevin Kline performs his few songs with style and aplomb, if not the vocal excellence of which he's more than capable.

Of the film's strengths -- and they are few -- Kline's performance is the greatest. If there were an Oscar for Best Actor Struggling Against a Devastatingly Weak Script, he would be a shoo-in. How he managed to deliver some of those lines with a straight face (particularly in the cliche-ridden first half of the film) is beyond me. He and a radiant Ashley Judd, who plays Linda, manage to give a reality to the Cole-Linda relationship, so that their eventual fates become touching, and the film ends on a romantically quiet note. Before, that is, the dreadful pop performances are reprised over the end credits.

The two leading actors, however, are not enough to save De-Lovely from its countless flaws. A weak, schizophrenic script and a collection of what may be the worst performances ever of a great songwriter's oeuvre sink this poor tub before it's even christened. Spend what you might have on tickets (or the DVD) on either of these CDs: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook or Sinatra Sings Cole Porter and hear these classic, immortal songs the way they should be performed. De-Lovely, on the other hand, should be sued for using false advertising in its title.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 6 August 2004

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