Unlovely De-Lovely Mangles Porter

I had high hopes that De-Lovely would relieve the tedium of a summer plagued by spider men, Stepford wives, black men in reverse-insult whiteface, dodgeball violence and Jackie Chan in a helium balloon. Let’s face it, a whole movie about the tortured life and enduring genius of the great Cole Porter, with glamorous settings, elegant clothes, dazzling jewels, the panache of a more sophisticated age, and all those timeless songs!! Here, for sure, I said, is a movie idea made in heaven and meant for me! So I rushed to De-Lovely humming “Begin the Beguine,” high with a rush of anticipation, feeling excitement in the air and asking “How bad could it be?” I quickly found out.

There are a few good things in De-Lovely , and I’ll get to them later. But for the most part, it is my sad duty to tell you it is wooden, artificial, contrived, infuriating and as phony as an invitation to bring along a tape recorder to dinner with J.D. Salinger. Worse still, it proves beyond a doubt that nobody knows how to make movies anymore. Irwin Winkler, who is no tattooed teenager, has directed a few good ones in his day, and writer Jay Cocks, who used to be a film critic, knows what to do with words. But they have both fallen victim to the misguided television notion that nothing is possible without attracting a youth market. This is the same idiotic thinking that turned this year’s Tony Awards show into such a disaster. L.L. Cool J rapping “Hello, Dolly” to a stricken, flabbergasted Carol Channing did not attract a younger audience to the American theater, it only made fools of two performers from two different planets by mixing gasoline and Perrier. The same thing happens in De-Lovely . Dragging in tone-deaf pop-rock and New Wave musical curiosities like Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow and Elvis Costello to “interpret” the legendary classics of Cole Porter is like holding a gun to Renée Fleming’s head and ordering her to sing “Beat Me With a Tire Iron, Baby”! The result is a horrifying program of some of the greatest and most irresistible lyrics ever written-grunted, gargled, distorted and mangled beyond description. And it still will not lure an audience of kids, who couldn’t care less about Cole Porter in the first place. Misery prevails from downbeat to encore.

No waiting around for the sour notes in De-Lovely : A no-fail idea begins to fail in the very first scene. An old man in a lonely penthouse plays a mournful “Night and Day” in a wheelchair. This is Kevin Kline as the dying Cole Porter-but with a bald head, liver spots and wrinkles for days, he doesn’t remotely resemble Kevin Kline, or Cole Porter. He looks like Carl Reiner. Suddenly he is visited by someone named Gabe (Jonathan Pryce) who is either an angel of death, a pallbearer or a Broadway producer hell-bent on staging a Cole Porter revival. But instead of blowing on his horn once more, this Gabriel takes Cole on an escorted tour of the chapters of his own life, every phase staged as grand drama and accompanied by musical numbers, with lyrics that illustrate what was going through Cole’s head at the time he wrote them. The name-dropping tableaus in this randomly constructed collage do not flow as seamlessly as they would have in a Vincente Minnelli musical. They collide like bumper cars in a traveling carny show. One minute Cole is pursuing chorus boys; the next he’s in Paris, madly attracted to the American divorcée Linda Thomas (Ashley Judd). Strolling through the gardens of the Tuileries, they run into Diaghilev and a Russian dancer named Boris, who makes flirty eyes with the composer. The next minute, Linda is Cole’s wife and Boris is his lover. In a palazzo in Venice, Irving Berlin drops in. At a masked Venetian costume ball, Cole and Linda waltz through the room as Caesar and Cleopatra while Elvis Costello massacres “Let’s Misbehave.” Cole says, “You are the rhythm of my heart.” Ouch. Between starring on Broadway in The Man Who Came to Dinner and becoming a gruff, bearded, cantankerous Hollywood star, I don’t know where Monty Woolley found the time to act as Cole’s pimp, procuring boys in an exotic male brothel the color of boysenberry syrup, where the vocally challenged Sheryl Crow moans her way through a wacko minor-key arrangement of “Begin the Beguine” that sounds like a funeral dirge. In Hollywood, Louis B. Mayer-dressed like Napoleon-joins all of the dress extras at MGM to sing “Be a Clown.” Told to be discreet in his homosexual affairs, Cole says, “Discretion is dishonesty with a little good breeding.” Double ouch. Nothing about the long-suffering Linda makes any sense. The movie implies that Cole’s years of drinking, partying and sexual escapades left her lonely and miserable, when in fact she had her own affairs with women. In the movie, she rises from her death bed to fix Cole up with a handsome new companion and Cole sings “Ev’rytime We Say Goodbye” on the soundtrack during her funeral. The songs don’t even come in the right chronological order, and the historical inaccuracies are as annoying as they are unnecessary. There is one very funny scene in a Warner Brothers projection room where Linda and Cole watch the silly, overproduced 1946 biopic Night and Day , in which they were played by the luscious Alexis Smith and the elegant but riotously miscast Cary Grant. Even after the 1937 riding accident which left Cole drugged on scotch and morphine for the rest of his life, there was Cary, hale and hardy and strolling in the moonlight on two strong legs while the Warners symphony brought the film to a crashing finale. The lights come up in the screening room, and Kevin Kline says, “If I can survive this, I can survive anything.” It’s the biggest laugh in the movie, but in reality Night and Day , which was directed by Michael Curtiz and has just been released on DVD, is a better-made movie than this current debacle, and a lot more fun. I mean, Mary Martin singing “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” majestically surpasses the droopy, who-gives-a-shit Diana Krall, gloomily moping her way through a lifeless “Just One of Those Things.” Night and Day was a mess, but it was an entertaining mess.

Kevin Kline is such a remarkable actor that it is troubling to watch him try to bring some energy and flourish to these weak proceedings. Even after his leg is amputated, he plods on, both relentlessly cynical and ready for the next song. Ashley Judd as Linda Porter is so artificially posed and coiffed that she’s the one who seems paralyzed, not Cole. She’s a bad actress onstage and only slightly more animated on the screen, where isolated close-ups illuminate her frozen smile. Admittedly, her final gasps when Linda dies of emphysema are moving, although the music and the staging of her deathbed love confessions are lugubriously sentimental. The minor role of Cole’s last lover, ejected from the house before the composer died-Cole sits at the piano and waves him away with the lyrics from “It’s All Right With Me” (” … It’s the wrong time and the wrong place …. / Though your face is charming it’s the wrong face …. “)-is warmly and believably played with restraint and quiet dignity by Richard Dillane.

There is one musical performance worth noting, by the scrubbed and polished British pop star Robbie Williams. I found the pointing out of double-entendres in the Cole Porter song catalog very clever. And it must be emphasized that the period details in the lavishly appointed Elsie de Wolfe–inspired sets and costumes (recreated lovingly by Giorgio Armani) are memorable. Notice the antique silver frames, the tailored lapels, the freshly sharpened pencils in the julep cup on Cole’s varnished grand piano (a daily requirement at his country estate in Williamstown, Mass.). Even Linda’s museum-quality jewelry is either accurately replicated from the original designs by Fulco di Verdura, or the real McCoy. The research is admirable, the color is ravishing, and the movie looks good enough to eat. Too bad everything beneath the surface is so vapid, vacant and preposterous. Too bad this movie is not the joyous occasion it should be. One of my favorite Cole Porter songs is “Use Your Imagination”-a title with sound advice that some people responsible for De-Lovely followed too freely, plunging the movie into peril, and that others failed to acknowledge at all.

Ransoming Redford

You can’t count on anything these days: Robert Redford doesn’t even look like Robert Redford anymore. In The Clearing , by Dutch-born, American Film Institute–trained writer-director Pieter Jan Brugge, Mr. Redford looks ossified. He plays Wayne Hayes, a rich, self-made rental-car mogul in Pittsburgh who built his business from scratch and ended up giving Avis and Hertz sleepless nights. One night, he doesn’t come home for a dinner party planned by his loyal, loving, long-lasting wife Eileen (crisply played by the ever-composed Helen Mirren). Annoyance turns to anger, then concern-and when the police find a ransom note, the panic finally sets in. Hayes has been kidnapped by a wacko named Arnold (Willem Dafoe, providing another etching from his crowded portrait gallery of creeps and reprobates), who is demanding a huge fortune. While Arnold marches Wayne through the woods and up a mountainside to an isolated cabin where his partners in crime are waiting, a lot of palaver ensues about social stratification in America. Arnold once worked for Wayne. Arnold envies Wayne. Arnold is a downtrodden, henpecked loser. Wayne is a privileged, successful, happily married man with a beautiful home, a boat, a weekend getaway lodge on a lake and great kids who went to the right colleges.

Meanwhile, another story unravels simultaneously on the home front as Eileen deals with the F.B.I., withdraws the ransom money and pacifies her son and daughter (Alessandro Nivola and Melissa Sagemiller). As the film cuts back and forth between the parallel stories, alarming facts emerge: Wayne is not the corporate whiz the world perceives him to be, Eileen learns that he has been having an ongoing affair behind her back with a woman he lied about discarding years ago, and Arnold comes to the realization that if he kills Wayne in the clearing, he can keep all of the money himself.

The acting is first-cabin throughout, but this is a 30-minute plot that spreads clumsily over more than two hours like peanut butter on sticky white bread. It’s the kind of ponderous, slow-moving and talky ordeal that could only be made by a European director. Everything about it is stultifying, unexceptional and dull. But the real cause for alarm is Mr. Redford. His eyelids no longer meet his eyeballs. His ruddy, mottled skin needs a sanding. His face looks like the map of Argentina. In the close-ups, there’s a sore on his lip. He’s never anything less than natural, and his instincts about how to say the most mundane lines are as exciting and unpredictable as ever. And his name still carries weight above the title, which is obviously why The Clearing was financed. But when an icon ages this badly, it might be time to move comfortably away from the punishment of the big screen and mercifully in the direction of the retirement pension.