The success of Chicago aside, conventional wisdom dictates that the movie musical has been dead for decades, lost on an audience no longer willing to accept characters breaking into song. Consequently, the few that have been made are paralyzed by self-consciousness, either steeped in warmed-over nostalgia or incited by post-modern gimmickry. Irwin Winkler's De-Lovely, a moribund Cole Porter biopic/musical revue, stumbles into both pitfalls at once, mounting a lead-shoed MGM tribute on top of a theater-as-life framing device right out of All That Jazz. The conceptual problems get even stickier in the vocal performances, which lean heavily on contemporary singers as a sop to the ticket-buying masses. If Porter's songs are so timeless, why does the movie sound like something that might have played on VH1 five years ago?
The awkwardness begins when Jonathan Pryce, playing some sort of cheery conduit to the theater world, appears to Kevin Kline's Porter near the end of the songwriter's life and guides him on a trip down memory lane. They begin in Paris 1918, where a sprightly Porter ditty draws the attention of pretty divorcée Linda (Ashley Judd), who falls in love with the music before the man. Forged on loyalty and affection, their curious marriage somehow survived his dalliances with other men, which only became a problem once his affairs grew less discreet. Sprinkled generously with musical numbers throughout—each cued a little too neatly to the drama unfolding—the film follows Cole and Linda as they take Hollywood by storm and weather personal tragedies, including a riding accident that crushes both Cole's legs. When Linda later develops lung cancer, the chance for a happy ending seems bleak.
Save for an old-fashioned song-and-dance rendition of "Be A Clown" on the MGM backlot, De-Lovely confines most of the performances to a Broadway stage, a movie set, or Cole's piano—any place where it's only natural to belt out a tune. Elvis Costello and Sheryl Crow do well by "Let's Misbehave" and "Begin The Beguine," respectively, and Alanis Morissette less so with "Let's Fall In Love," but the cumulative effect of these numbers does nothing to illuminate Cole Porter's life, let alone his music. To show how Cole and Linda's mysterious arrangement ticked, Winkler and screenwriter Jay Cocks have their work cut out for them, but Cole's sexuality, in particular, is a pitiful gloss, all furtive glances and bear hugs. What's left is the music itself, which will continue to endure in spite of De-Lovely. The fate of musicals as a form, however, may suffer further damage.