(2004) ** 1/2 Pg-13
125 min. MGM. Director: Irwin Winkler. Cast: Kevin Kline, Ashley Judd, Jonathan Pryce, Kevin McNally, Sandra Nelson.

The great songwriter Cole Porter penned the tune "You'd Be So Easy to Love," but one can't say the same for Irwin Winkler's new biopic of Porter. Though ambitious, often clever, and occasionally affecting, De-Lovely is too often precious, workmanlike, or awkward. With a strong central performance by Kevin Kline, Winkler improves on Michael Curtiz's 1946 snow job Night and Day (starring Cary Grant as "Cole Porter"), but call this a frustrating near-miss, all the same.

Porter, a master songsmith of the twentieth century, wrote deathless standards like "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Anything Goes," "Begin the Beguine," "Night and Day," and "It's De-Lovely." His life was a roller coaster of big successes, romantic entanglements, and tragic falls. His two biggest complications were irrepressible aspects of his personality: his silver-tongued wit and his homosexuality.

The latter especially complicated his relationship with his devoted wife of over thirty years, Linda Lee Porter (Ashley Judd). Porter's musical question "What is This Thing Called Love?" provides the film's emotional spine: according to Winkler and Jay Cocks, Linda was the love of Porter's life, despite his countless gay dalliances. Their relationship was nothing if not unconventional, and the film depicts an open, though inevitably hurtful, marriage. Linda's early comment "You have so much nerve, Mr. Porter" proves prescient as Cole pursues men with reckless abandon, but when pushes came to shoves, the couple clung protectively to each other.

Winkler casts theatre-trained thespians to anchor the story: Kline, Judd, and Jonathan Pryce, who serves as the elderly Porter's "Ghost of Christmas Past"-type guide into the flashbacks which comprise the film (the device recalls Sir Richard Attenborough's likewise troublesome Chaplin). Some of the theatrical devices of Cocks and Winkler work like gangbusters, since theatre was Porter's primary milieu: lighting transitions, live production audio for the musical numbers, and a freedom from film's typical realistic restraints.

The flashback device, for example, gives Winkler license to "remember" Porter's story as he wishes, foregoing strict chronology the better to allow Porter's music to comment on his life. One of De-Lovely's great strengths is its ability to lift, casually, all of the self-reflexive innuendo out of Porter's songs, from the little-known "Experiment" ("Make it your motto day and night") to "You're the Top," which suddenly seems crassly funny in a context of Porter's wily gaiety ("But if, baby, I'm the bottom,/You're the top!").

Unfortunately, the film's postmodern staginess assists in keeping Porter endlessly at arm's length. Perhaps Porter is doomed (or blessed) to remain an enigma: Kline convincingly portrays him as a man who slyly sublimated his feelings into his songs while living a lie in the public eye. Cocks frames a scene incorporating the movie tune "Be a Clown" as Porter's stiletto response to Hollywood's request for him to dumb down his lyrics. Bon mots buffer Porter from slings and arrows; promises and lies and sincerities are his passive-aggressive tools. The man lived by the word and died by the word.

The film's two best scenes sublimely meld music to dramatic context: in one, Porter seduces an actor by teaching him how to sing "Night and Day" properly; in another, Porter serenades Linda with a final love song. But when Cole speaks with anyone, particularly Linda, the dialogue too often thuds stiltedly ("You are the rhythm of my heart," he tells her). Occasionally, the talk approaches the incisive snap of Old Hollywood (Linda drily tells Cole, "'s just say you like them more than I do"), but even then, the lines are no more convincing.

Winkler's most obnoxious choice may have been sincere, but feels more like fiscal pragmatism. Admittedly, to present Porter's songs as they were sung in the early part of the last century would be untenable to modern ears, but Winkler drives us to distraction by enlisting today's pop music stars: Robbie Williams, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow, among others, take their turns stopping the show (Natalie Cole's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" succeeds best, as a cabaret-style torch song). Preferable presentations are crooned by Kline, Judd, and others in a modern musical theatre style which serves the music less jarringly.

Though De-Lovely fails to achieve a harmony of its incongruous elements, the failure is an interesting one worthy of attention. Perhaps a stronger filmmaker, like Martin Scorsese (a mutual friend and frequent collaborator with Winkler and Cocks) could have made De-Lovely a less flawed and more definitive portrait of the artist.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 4/5/2011

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Fox's release of the MGM title De-Lovely features a beaut of a hi-def transfer and a full collection of bonus features to justify the "Special Edition" appellation. The image upgrade is significant: clean and film-like, the picture boasts vibrant color and sharp detail and texture. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix does an excellent job of warmly presenting the lush music, dialogue is never less than clear, and surround channels deliver good immersion, particularly during the many party and theater scenes.

The special edition kicks off with audio commentary with director Irwin Winkler and actor Kevin Kline and audio commentary with Winkler and screenwriter Jay Cocks, the former more concerned with production and performance, and the latter more concerned with historical perspective and the script (natch).

Also returning from the DVD edition are a decent half-hour "Making Of" (25:37, SD) and a featurette focusing on "The Music" (15:19, SD), including comments from interpreters Elvis Costello and Alanis Morissette.

"Anatomy of a Scene: Be a Clown" (5:33, SD) and "Anatomy of a Scene: Love for Sale" (3:10, SD) are tantalizingly short looks at the filming of two particular scenes.

Nine "Deleted Scenes" (14:29, SD) include an alternate ending, and the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:22, SD) rounds out the disc.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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