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No kick from this Cole Porter refrain

July 02, 2004|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

De-lousy. To understand the hash that's been made from Cole Porter's life and music in the new movie "De-Lovely" you could start with "Begin the Beguine." Porter's lament for lost love opens with deceptive quiet and illusions of tropical splendor only to quickly become an incantation of incessant, desperate need. An intoxicating cocktail of naked obsession and sophisticated musicality, the song is perfect Porter and a perfect metaphor for the composer's life, the complexities of which are suggested by neither Sheryl Crow's vapid rendition of the song nor this equally off-putting musical feature.

Played by the appealing if miscast Kevin Kline, Porter enters the story in 1964, tickling piano keys in a darkened room. He's soon joined by Jonathan Pryce, who strolls in while murmuring gibberish about it being time to go. Confusingly, this presumptive valet is actually "Gabe," as in "Gabriel," as in the winged seraph of heaven, and the titular subject of Porter's rousing song "Blow, Gabriel, Blow." Something certainly blows here, but it isn't the archangel's horn. The film soon jumps to 1918, when Porter first met his future and long-suffering wife, Linda Thomas (Ashley Judd). A divorcee several years his senior, Thomas shined her beatitude on the composer through many extramarital affairs (his) and beautiful tears (hers), thereby saving the filmmakers the commercial grief of making a movie about an unambiguously gay man.

Porter was a matrix of contradictions -- it was, perhaps, his most American quality. A small-town boy from Peru, Ind., he metamorphosed into a Parisian sophisticate in the 1920s, the toast of Broadway in the '30s and a Hollywood myth in the '40s. He was a barely closeted, vigorously sexual gay man who nonetheless seemed to find some kind of happiness with his marriage, an arrangement that made sense given the social stigma and laws of the time. More important, Porter composed countless classics that wed popular music to lyrics ranging from naughty ("As Madam Sappho in some sonnet said / 'A slap and a tickle / Is all that the fickle / Male / Ever has in his head' ") to nice (" 'I love you' / That's the song of songs"). He was a phenomenal talent, a national treasure. He deserves better.

Directed by Irwin Winkler and written by Jay Cocks, each of whom has done better (Irwin co-produced "Raging Bull"; Cocks co-wrote "The Age of Innocence"), "De-Lovely" is neither fish nor fowl -- neither fully revisionist nor a total bowdlerization. In between wince-worthy production numbers, the film repeatedly draws attention to Porter's dalliances, his relationship with a ballet dancer named Boris, his all-male pool parties and shadowy cruising, but without an ounce of heat or a hint of reckless, plausible desire. It's as if the filmmakers, afraid to ignore Porter's secret life, were just as afraid of giving that life its due for fear of offending a mainstream audience. So Porter, whose journey from the Midwest to MGM was turned into a sudsy 1940s travesty with Cary Grant, remains a cardboard cutout all these years later.

A few unhappy words about the music: For some reason, perhaps politesse, the filmmakers have omitted such saucy, less familiar Porter compositions as "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" (immortalized with lusty innuendo by Mary Martin) and "Find Me a Primitive Man" ("I could be the personal slave / Of someone just out of a cave"). A handful of standards are here, of course -- "Night and Day," "I Get a Kick Out of You" -- but outside of Porter's reedy rendition of "You're the Top," the hard-sell arrangements are uniformly and bombastically anachronistic. You just haven't cringed until you've heard Alanis Morissette yodel "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love"). It would have been de-lovely if the filmmakers had instructed otherwise talented performers such as Elvis Costello to sing Porter's songs rather than bellow them like farmers calling in the pigs.



MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content.

Times guidelines: Gently suggestive

Kevin Kline...Cole Porter

Ashley Judd...Linda Porter

Jonathan Pryce...Gabe

Kevin McNally...Gerald Murphy

Sandra Nelson...Sara Murphy

A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures presentation, released by MGM Distribution Co. Director Irwin Winkler. Writer Jay Cocks. Producers Irwin Winkler, Rob Cowan, Charles Winkler. Director of photography Tony Pierce-Roberts. Production designer Eve Stewart. Editor Julie Monroe. Costume designer Janty Yates. Music arranged and produced by Stephen Endelman. Music and lyrics Cole Porter. Casting Nina Gold. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

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