"This is one of those avant-garde things, is it?" says a droll, dubious and dying Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) as he sits in an empty theater at the beginning of "De-Lovely," watching his life pass before his eyes on the stage, in a production conducted by an enigmatic, ironic, ethereal director named Gabe (Jonathan Pryce).
The answer to his question is a delighted "yes." This film is an imaginative, deconstructionist, celebratory musical biography woven together from elements of theater, meta-cinema, chamber drama and Porter's own MGM musicals with gratifying -- if deliberately glossy -- results.
Kline opens the picture as a frail but feisty old man (the age makeup is remarkable) who, as he watches his own story unfold, is alternatively tickled ("Oh, look, it's an opening number!"), critical ("He'd never wear that! Change it."), fondly reminiscent and pained by regret. And the actor also plays the younger Porter in the bulk of the picture, which has a merry, dreamlike quality to its stop-and-start interactions with the elderly Porter and his theatrical spirit guide.
Structured around the emotional anchor of the musician's life -- his atypical, sometimes unstable, but always adoring relationship with his wife Linda (Ashley Judd) -- the film takes full advantage of Porter's prolific catalog of catchy, innuendo-tinged, covertly autobiographical tunes. "So In Love," "Anything Goes," "Let's Misbehave" and at least a dozen more are cleverly used to illustrate the couple's ups and downs, and the bisexual dalliances that sometimes fueled them.
Director Irwin Winkler (who teamed with Kline for 2002's "Life as a House") and screenwriter Jay Cocks ("Gangs of New York," "Strange Days") make a mistake by jumping rather abruptly into Porter's sexuality, and initially show Linda shrugging off the revelation with unlikely ease, even for an open-minded woman of the late 1920s. "You mean men?" she flirts with knowing intelligence in her eyes, "Let's just say you like them more than I do."
But the delicate, finely balanced performances of Kline and Judd find all the joy and all the sorrow in these characters lives. When Cole sings (badly as it turns out) to Linda at an outdoor cafe in Paris as they fall in love, the actors seem infused with the kind of charm of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers brought to "The Gay Divorcee." When Cole fumbles around the idea of having children, Kline strikes a tone of self-deprecating coyness as he enters the separate bedroom his wife keeps, asking, "How do you want to play this? Comedy? Tragedy? Farce?"
Later, as Cole returns to his piano for the first time after the horse-riding accident that left him nearly unable to walk, Judd is absolutely heartbreaking as she stands outside her husband's studio quietly quaking in her tears as she listens to his anguished frustration when he can't even work the pedals.
But the film's composition of fade-in, fade-out highlights from Porter's life in theater and in Hollywood, in love and in lust, seems only to skim along the surface of their devotion, just occasionally dipping a toe in the water and splashing up these deeper emotions.
Porter's affairs are more alluded to in Linda's discontentment than they are acted out on screen, even though the story reaches a point where his life revolves around sneaking out on her to, among other things, visit a underground gay nightclub evening after evening in a crafty, rotating-camera musical montage sequence.
That scene is set to the tune of "Love for Sale," performed by rising soul sensation Vivian Green in a cameo as the club's smoky chanteuse. As both an element of the film's novel self-awareness and an homage to the use of big band musicians in 1940s movie musicals, "De-Lovely" is littered with such background appearances. Natalie Cole, Elvis Costello, Alanis Morissette, Diana Krall, Sheryl Crow, Robbie Williams and others all fit into their period scenes surprisingly well, yet stand out quite memorably by singing surprising, splendid and distinctively non-traditional arrangements of Porter's greatest hits.
Winkler takes a few other missteps that hinder the potential brilliance of "De-Lovely." Porter's drinking and substance addictions barely register on the film's radar, and if you're not already familiar with the man's life, good luck figuring out what fatal illness Linda is stricken with halfway through or how Porter came to be so rich at the beginning when Irving Berlin tells him "you have far too much talent to waste as an amateur."
But the narrative creativity and overwhelming emotional veracity that burst through the movie's affected sheen at exactly the right moments -- including the poignant, pitch-perfect, bittersweet finale -- go a long way toward making up for its few shortcomings.