Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Movie: De-Lovely (2004)

Exposition is a bear that every movie’s got to cross, but in a biopic it’s murder. Stanley Kubrick told William Goldman that in his planned film about Napoleon he “wanted to do the whole sweep of a man’s life” even though, as Goldman observed, film doesn’t do that very well. Goldman went on to work on CHAPLIN, which attempted it anyway. His solution was the inelegant addition of Anthony Hopkins’ character, the editor who cleared up a few points in Chaplin’s autobiography by asking obvious questions that made you wonder what the original manuscript read like. (The entry on Goldman in David Thomson’s BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF FILM ends: ‘One doubts that he was present or conscious when the device of the publisher/interlocutor was conceived,’ but in WHICH LIE DID I TELL? Goldman says it was his contribution. Can we get these two together for lunch? I’ll pay.)

This film about songwriter Cole Porter cribs Goldman’s technique, but with a theatrical panache that raises your hopes. Porter’s ethereal guide in his last moments (Jonathan Pryce) has arranged for his life to be staged as a musical, with Porter as director. It’s a clever piece of writing by Jay Cocks, not only acknowledging the artificiality of the structure but embracing it. Sadly, the storytelling turns rote soon after it’s introduced.

DE-LOVELY is a toothless version of what Todd Haynes attempted with FAR FROM HEAVEN, asking the musical question: what if MGM had made NIGHT AND DAY, their 1946 bio of Porter, without constraints? The answer is a movie in which the subject of Porter’s homosexuality is glossed over in decorous fashion.

Some critics are reevaluating the earlier film in the wake of this one. Let me say that NIGHT AND DAY is one of the most criminally boring films I’ve ever seen. I didn’t think Cary Grant could be bad in anything until I saw it on TCM last week. I didn’t even believe Monty Woolley as Monty Woolley. Especially when he started ogling chorus girls.

A few of Porter’s songs are staged as musical numbers which are uniformly dreadful. (Louis B. Mayer singing ‘Be A Clown’?) They serve as a reminder that above all genres, musicals require directors with a cohesive style. Irwin Winkler is one of the great producers: THE RIGHT STUFF, GOODFELLAS, ROCKY. As a director (AT FIRST SIGHT, NIGHT AND THE CITY), style is not an arrow in his quiver. I’m not sure he has a quiver.

Most of the songs are sung by what K-Tel calls ‘contemporary artists.’ Robbie Williams tosses off the title tune with such élan that I’m embarrassed he’s not a huge star in America. Elvis Costello does just fine by “Let’s Misbehave,” but the man still doesn’t know what to do with his hands. For some reason, his wife Diana Krall is made up to look like a film noir hash-house waitress. The less said about Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morrissette the better.

But Porter’s music beguiles even under this treatment. ‘Night and Day’ remains one of the great achievements of the 20th century. And Kevin Kline gives a titanic performance as Porter. Even when he’s playing opposite Ashley Judd, who mistakes hauteur for elegance. Even in old age prosthetics that indicate the research department consulted the wrong book, because he looks more like Noel Coward. He carries off the most difficult trick you can ask of an actor: he makes you believe he’s a genius, and a world-famous one to boot. DE-LOVELY is not a successful movie. It’s not even a good one. But God help me, I kind of enjoyed it.

Miscellaneous: Links

Sarah Weinman offers up thoughts on (and the full text of) Jim Fusilli’s Wall Street Journal piece on the perils of being a book critic. And courtesy of GreenCine, Bruce Feirstein explains what’s wrong with Hollywood.