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Song & Dance

Cole Porter biopic disappoints.


If a custom-tailored vet/asks me out for something wet/When the vet begins to pet -- I cry, Hooray!/But I m always true to you, darlin , in my fashion./Yes, I m always true to you, darlin , in my way.?
These lyrics are from Cole Porter s triumphant 1948 musical Kiss Me Kate. They could serve as the thesis for De-Lovely, a biopic of Porter s life from his courtship of wife Linda to his death. Porter was always true to Linda -- in his fashion. He had trysts and flings with men, but his heart belonged (primarily) to his wife.
They meet. He s the talk of the town, and she s a coveted socialite. She is drawn to his talent and charm, while he admires her style and poise. Played by Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd, they are a handsome couple. Even if they weren t, it would be easy to understand the attraction. But Porter s a bit more complicated than the average 1920s Joe: He has other interests. That s okay with Linda, who says early on, Let s just say you like men more than I do. So long as Cole always comes home to her, she s happy. And that s that. Or is it? Being a less-than-closeted homosexual, Cole enjoys more than just the physicality of his affairs. There is an entire subculture built around this particular adulterer and one that the wives aren t exactly invited to. Linda and Cole s relationship is built on a sharing and understanding that society couldn t fathom, so her exclusion from portions of Cole s life outside of the sexual turns out to be more daunting than either could expect.
Meanwhile, Cole goes from one musical to another, with parties and after-parties, Hollywood and Paris in between. But tragedy eventually strikes: Cole s legs are broken in a riding accident, and Linda develops emphysema. Their dedication to each other is tested yet again when they must become each other s caretaker. For Linda, this means securing a partner for Cole after she is gone. For Cole, losing Linda is like losing a muse.
Watching De-Lovely is not unlike standing in the wings and witnessing the inner workings of a musical unfold. Sometimes it makes sense and sometimes it doesn t, but we forgive the messy conceits because we love the form. Or we don t forgive because we don t love musicals.
Alas, De-Lovely doesn t have a very strong narrative or directorial push. In musicals, a director knows when to take a pause and when to keep things fast and funny. De-Lovely ambles along, sometimes singing and sometimes not, and the musical numbers have even less definition than were they onstage. Sometimes the world is a big musical, and everyone is a participant. Sometimes it s just Cole and Linda sitting at a piano with Cole crooning to his lady love. Amid it all is a peculiar framing device that has Jonathan Pryce appearing as a phantom producer beckoning Cole to tell his story and revisit old triumphs and hurts. I wish that the writer Jay Cocks and director Irwin Winkler had committed to the idea of making this a musical. Instead, it moves along like a long dress rehearsal, with some production numbers fully realized and others limping along.
Kline is rather wonderful as Porter. He makes no grand overtures toward likability, opting instead to depict Cole as the complicated and often difficult man that he was. Kline has also toned down his own singing abilities to better mimic Porter, who, while a musical genius, was not an accomplished vocalist. This makes his many serenades to Linda all the sweeter -- labors of love instead of ease. Judd doesn t fare as well, and while I am not a big fan, I can credit her for at least rising to the material. The film seems content to state early on that the Porters have a unique understanding, but the film doesn t evolve much beyond their adoration and her occasionally looking the other way.
Those who hate musical theater typically do so because they can t understand what the fuss is all about. Nor can they invest in the conceit. This movie is not for them. Like a musical, Linda and Cole Porter are messy and, in their way, beautiful, and they don t always jibe. But they forgive and persist because of that same elusive quality that allows one to suspend disbelief and love the musical. n

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