If you're planning on catching "De-Lovely," the toe-tapping new film inspired by the life of songwriter extraordinaire Cole Porter, bring a sweater. It's not so much the chill of the theater's air conditioning you need worry about, but that of the film. Yes, it looks de-lovely. Sure, it sounds de-lightful. But the movie's temperature is also de-de-de-damn near hypothermic.
This is odd, considering that it is a love story, of sorts. It's not so odd when you consider that the love story in question takes place between Porter (Kevin Kline), who was gay, and his wife, Linda (Ashley Judd). The beautiful divorcee's attitude about her husband's lack of sexual appetite for her seems to echo that of the immortal Joe E. Brown in "Some Like It Hot," who, when confronted by the fact that his girlfriend is really a man in drag, utters this memorable line: "Well, nobody's perfect."
Neither, alas, is this movie.
Structured as a series of deathbed flashbacks that are viewed -- and commented upon -- by an aged Porter and a mysterious-spirit guide-cum-theater-impresario played by Jonathan Pryce, the movie has the air of something that's been in the morgue's icebox for a week. That's okay, in that it gives director Irwin Winkler and writer Jay Cocks the chance to present Porter's life, in a sense, as Porter himself might have done so for the stage: coldly and dispassionately. Its theatricality is artificial, to be sure, but it underscores the film's theme of appearance vs. reality.
And the way the filmmakers have incorporated Porter's wonderful music into the plot -- interpreted by such performers as Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morissette, Diana Krall and Natalie Cole -- is inventive and almost always effective. In fact, it often casts Porter's familiar, witty lyrics in an arresting new light. Vivian Green, for example, croons "Love for Sale" as Winkler's camera glides through the homosexual demimonde of Porter's hidden life.
Where "De-Lovely" doesn't work so well is in telling the tale of the Porters' mostly sexless -- but, we're given to believe, far from loveless -- marriage. More's the pity, because this narrative, and not so much the ups and downs of Porter's career trajectory in Europe, New York and Hollywood, is the spine of the film.
Why did Linda Porter love Cole Porter? That question lies close to the heart of "De-Lovely," and it's never really answered, not in any thoroughly convincing way, at any rate. Linda makes it clear early on that she's looking for someone to treat her better than her physically abusive first husband, a hurdle the refined Porter can easily clear. What's more, he showers her with material comforts. Linda, in turn, fills the role of muse and moral support for the sometimes difficult creative genius she married.
Yet it's arguable that Cole Porter's increasingly indiscreet predilection for pretty young men -- at the mounting expense of his appearance-conscious wife's happiness -- was a kind of emotional abuse, even though the abuse was, to all intents and purposes, part of a compact willingly entered into by the two parties.
This kind of thing goes on all the time. There's even a name for it: co-dependency. Yet despite "De-Lovely's" meticulous concern for surfaces, beautifully capturing the styles and clothing of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, it never manages to let us inside its protagonists' heads -- or hearts.
In other words, it makes sense when Linda and Cole separate, less so when they reunite after he is gravely injured in a horse-riding accident and she comes back to nurse him. In song after achingly lovely song ("True Love," "So in Love," "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," "In the Still of the Night"), the complexities and contradictions of relationships are probed with the brains, soul and heat that was the hallmark of Porter's music.
In the end, though, the people at the center of "De-Lovely" seem less to have lived lives than to have played roles. While that's certainly in keeping with Cocks and Winkler's point about deception and dishonesty, the movie drains Cole and Linda Porter of blood and fills them with embalming fluid.
De-Lovely (125 minutes, at Loews Georgetown and Landmark Bethesda Row) is rated PG-13 for post-coital canoodling and sexual references.