A World of Fragments

This is a blog for the review and discussion of films; all kinds of film, old and new, good and bad. Participation is always encouraged - even if you disagree! Leave me a comment, drop me a line. Heck, you might even want to recommend a movie...

Thursday, August 25, 2005

De-Lovely



Title: De-Lovely (2004)
Dir.: John Ford
Stars: Kevin Kline, Ashley Judd, Jonathan Pryce

Viewed: on DVD (feature only)

This review contains MILD SPOILERS

A few months ago I had the absolutely intense misfortune to see Night and Day, the 1946 biopic of Cole Porter starring Cary Grant. It's not a good film - even the songs are, largely, ruined by someone overdubbing Grant with a very unlikely baritone. Worse, if you know even the tiniest smidgin about Cole Porter, you'll instantly realize what a candy-coated picture it is, not just because of the absence of Porter's many homosexual relationships, but because it's just so...well...irritatingly Hollywood.

I didn't see De-Lovely in the theater, at least in part because no one wanted to go with me and there were other films I'd rather see alone. I come to it now, months later, having happened on it at the library - and I'm actually a little sorry I didn't go to the theater for this one. It's not a full-scale musical like Moulin Rouge! (another one I foolishly disregarded), but it has enough larger-than-life elements of the form that I think I would have found it more affecting on a big screen. Possibly, however, I might also have found it more disjointed.

It has a rather strange structure. The whole thing revolves around Cole Porter, on the day of his death, being taken by a mysterious man (Jonathan Pryce) to see a musical of his own life. This isn't really a spoiler - it's immediately apparent from the outset of the story. We then have long stretches of Cole's life, occasionally interrupted by his older self and his mysterious companion. Usually, Cole's famous songs are woven into the drama as performances, but very occasionally they follow a more Hollywood pattern as the characters break into song. Sometimes it's even a combination of the two. And all that confusion of style - is this supposed to be real? Is it a show? Is it Cole's imagination? - is a bit disarming.

To add to that disarming quality, we have the musical cameos by famous singing stars. This is the element that's sure to either make or break the audience's appreciation of the film, and for the most part, I found it irritating. I had the same reaction when I saw Mona Lisa Smile and noticed Tori Amos' cameo - it's just plain distracting, and it rips you out of the film, even when you have classy, appropriate voices, like Natalie Cole, Diana Krall, and even Robbie Williams (who seems to be making a second career out of swing music). And then it's downright upsetting when one of the celebrities doesn't match the music, as with Alanis Morrisette's all-too-modern "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love," or Elvis Costello's (and I love Elvis Costello's music) physically uncomfortable "Let's Misbehave." It's a tiny portion of the film, but one that has a lot of bearing on whether the film "works" or not - and that, to my mind, is a rather serious flaw.

The dramatic sequences are far better, as are the few songs sung by genuine Broadway actors, who aren't so familiar we pay more attention to their faces than their voices. I particularly enjoyed John Barrowman's (recently so charmingly devilish in the new Doctor Who series) take on "Night and Day." Kevin Kline himself does a number of songs very well, balancing on the wire between professional and talented amateur (and obviously dumbing his own singing talent down a bit - he's a great singer - which is, in its own way, quite an achievement). And Kline is a great Cole Porter, even if he is slightly too old; a charmer, a rogue, and a rather needy creative genius. I was able to buy his performance far more than any attempt at vulnerability by Cary Grant, and you can tell Kline was the only person ever considered for this role - the lines are tailored to his style of delivery. Ashley Judd is good as his long-suffering wife, Linda, although she seems a less vital casting choice.

As for how accurate the film is - well, there seem to be conflicting reports on that score. As far as I can tell, nobody is quite sure what the truth about Cole Porter's life was, especially regarding his and Linda's relationship. Enough facts are here to acquit the existence of the film, and although some characters are combined, there's such a roster of them you can't really feel things have been glossed over. No biography is going to be perfect, and any fictionalization will crimp and cut and reorder events. (There's already been a bit of controversy that Porter's songs are slightly chronologically out of order.) Perhaps this one's greatest success is that it doesn't resort to the standard Hollywood biopic technique of outright lies.

The fantasy framework of Cole's death is peculiar, but at no time are you supposed to really take it seriously. As the characters say, it's a bad idea to end the story of a life on a total downer. So the movie makers want to assure us Cole met peace in death? Okay, I can swallow that. It is a Hollywood musical, after all, and the final musical sequence is a humdinger (though slightly better in its original cut, as available in the DVD special features). It's a rather depressing film, and it seems to me a little bit of redemption at the end is no bad thing.

I suggest renting the film if you're interested in the composer and his music, although - as with any biopic - I would also recommend further reading and study to round out the experience. It's possible that the features on the DVD would help in this regard - there are two commentaries and a plethora of featurettes - but I personally didn't view anything more than the deleted scenes. Some films leave you wanting to know more about their production, and some don't. This one didn't, for me. I'd rather read up more extensively on Cole Porter the man, to be honest, and leave the film to itself. I enjoyed seeing it once, but after that, I'd just as soon listen to the music.

2 Comments:

  • At 5:47 AM, Blogger Nick Campbell said…

    That sounds really good, a lot better than I'd imagined. The framing device of the bio-pic musical sounds a very charming way of paying tribute without sycophancy, as well as recognising the trials and tribulations of the genre. I wrote an essay about 'realism' and the bio-pic and it does seem, ironically, you need a bit more zhooshing for a life than for a fiction. (Peter Ackroyd said something similar in an interview about biographies this weekend...)

     
  • At 7:56 PM, Blogger Sarah Hadley said…

    Hmm, who might you be? ;) I think you would like the movie. It's a little...odd...but I certainly left glad that I saw it. And it is a *lot* more ...well, fun!...than your traditional dour biopic. (Because going by their interpretation of Cole's life, it would indeed have been pretty dour told straight...)

     

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