"This is one of those avant-garde things, isn't it?" gripes the old man as he's wheeled into the theater for a play rehearsal. He's songwriter Cole Porter (Kevin Kline), and the character to whom he speaks is either a stage director named Gabe or Death himself. Since he's played by Jonathan Pryce, bet on Death. The play that Porter and we are about to watch is his own life. With musical numbers. Sung by the likes of Elvis Costello and Sheryl Crow.
It sounds like a hideous idea, but "De-Lovely" turns out to be thoughtful, creative, and generally worthy of its subject, with sins that are more of ambition and miscalculation than of execution. The movie, a valentine to an older way of life and of music, has a modern candor about homosexuality, and that alone makes it an improvement over the last Porter biopic, 1946's "Night and Day," in which Cary Grant fraudulently played the composer straight.
And there are the songs: airy delights with hidden pockets of melancholy. If nothing else, "De-Lovely" is a refresher course in what made Porter one of the holy trinity of early 20th-century popcraft along with the Gershwins and Irving Berlin. There's a marvelous scene in which the composer coaches an actor (John Barrowman) having trouble finding his way into the song "Night and Day" during a rehearsal for the 1932 musical "Gay Divorce." Porter breaks down the constituent parts of the tune and points out the thread of obsession that runs through them, and what starts as a conversation between a composer and an actor becomes a dialogue between a composer and his own song.
The actor he saves for bed. As directed by Irwin Winkler from a sometimes awkward, sometimes sleek script by Jay Cocks, the primary drama of "De-Lovely" concerns Porter's 35-year marriage to Linda Thomas (Ashley Judd), a wealthy divorcee with whom he shared a strained intimacy that went beyond matters of sex. Or tried to -- the tension driving the couple's scenes comes from whether such a swellegant ideal can work in the real world. The downside was that Cole increasingly dallied with the boys while Linda sat home alone. Judd, playing right up against the limits of her talents, keeps you sympathizing with the character even as you realize Linda may have been the 20th century's most sophisticated doormat. This is a woman who with her last breath apologizes for dying.
Does that make Cole a cad? Yes and no. In a performance that's pleasurably ripe yet lacking in actorly fussiness, Kline plays Porter as a child of privilege who addresses self-knowledge in his songs and avoids it everywhere else. He's a professional bon vivant as well as a professional songwriter -- I liked the shot of him working out the kinks of a tune with a thesaurus and a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red by his side -- and "De-Lovely" is fairly ruthless about the price one pays for such a life.
But first it has to make Porter's songs "relevant" to a new generation of moviegoers. To which I say: God help us all. The production numbers in which "real" characters burst into song and dance feel forced -- I'm of the opinion that MGM head Louis B. Mayer (Peter Polycarpou) probably never ham-and-egged it to the tune of "Be a Clown" -- and the star turns by Famous Performers of Today are mostly a wash.
The problem is that singers such as Costello, Robbie Williams, and Alanis Morissette use a post-rock language of performance that bears no syntactical relationship to this time period or these songs. Either their vocal style is idiosyncratic and all wrong -- Elvis yawping through "Let's Misbehave," Alanis singing "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)" through her nose -- or the physical gestures are off (Crow's "Begin the Beguine," Diana Krall's "Just One of Those Things"). Aside from Kline singing "What Is This Thing Called Love?" in Porter's quavery whisper, the only survivors are Vivian Green, who gets the sense of "Love for Sale" if not the sadness, and Natalie Cole, who has been around long enough to know what to do with "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye."
That last song has an eerie, appropriate line: "How strange the change from major to minor." The final scenes of "De-Lovely," after Linda has passed away and Porter has suffered endless pain following a 1937 riding accident that crushed his legs, are bitter indeed. They culminate in a remarkable sequence in which the aging composer tries to entertain dinner guests at his piano and instead becomes a kind of dying human jukebox, with pieces of his songs pouring helplessly out of him, bereft of sparkle and fooling no one.
It's an awful, distressing moment, one that exposes the sweet lies behind an entire genre, and Winkler can't handle it -- he changes gears into a final upbeat song-and-dance version of "Blow, Gabriel, Blow." But it's too late to clear the bile out of your mouth, and, ironically, that failure is a mark of the movie's success. Fumbling as it can be, "De-Lovely" catches the tragedy of the man who wrote "Anything Goes" and thought that it did.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.