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DE-LOVELY *

CAST: Kevin Kline, Ashley Judd, Jonathan Pryce, Kevin McNally, Allan Corduner, Sandra Nelson, Kieth Allen, James Wilby, Kevin McKidd, Peter Polycarpou, Richard Dillane, Edward Baker-Duly, Elvis Costello, Natalie Cole, Sheryl Crow, Lemar, Mick Hucknall, Alanis Morissette, Diana Krall, Robbie Williams, Caroline O’Connor

DIRECTOR: Irwin Winkler

SCREENWRITER: Jay Cocks

You fear it’s never going to happen, but finally it does. At long last, "De-Lovely" comes to an end, and as the credits begin to roll, a voice on the soundtrack can be heard singing Cole Porter’s "You’re the Top." The rendition is elegant, fizzy, sly, poignant and unforgettable--truly the top, because the voice bringing such abundant wit and urgency to the timeless lyrics of the song is that of the composer. And suddenly it becomes achingly clear that what’s missing from this dreary, tin-eared fiasco is any sense of the genius and humanity of Porter himself. No heart, no soul, no brains, no fun.

It’s bad enough that director Irwin Winkler tortures us with tacky, self-indulgent interpretations of Porter classics by the likes of Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Caroline O’Connor and Alanis Morissette (not to mention the insipid vocalizing of Porter impersonator Kevin Kline, an actor with an excellent voice who apparently decided to hold back in the belief that Porter couldn’t carry a tune—a wrong decision if ever there was one). Even more annoying than the massive music abuse is the flimsy, sloppily constructed screenplay that transports a dying (or maybe already dead) Porter and a mysterious director (his name is Gabe, so he could well turn out to be a horn-blowing angel) into a shadowy Broadway theater where a rehearsal of a show based on the composer’s life is underway.

Throughout the film, Gabe comes and goes, popping up unannounced to remind Porter of some past professional triumph. Or, in some instances, forcing him—and us—to focus on a bit of unpleasant private business, such as a fall from a horse that left him a cripple, or a payoff Porter and his socialite wife Linda made to a blackmailer who had photos of Porter having a hot time at a gay Hollywood orgy during the thirties.

Or was it the forties, or possibly the fifties? It’s impossible to tell, since the movie’s chronology is hopelessly jumbled. Songs are sung decades earlier than they were actually written (apparently because the lyrics seemed to convey the sentiments screenwriter Jay Cocks wanted to tuck into a particular scene). On a more personal note, Cole and Linda toy with the idea of escaping from the jangle of Manhattan by stealing away to Paris, seemingly oblivious to the fact that World War II is raging throughout Europe (actually, nobody in the movie seems remotely aware that there is a war, or anything else of consesquence, taking place outside their tight, privileged little circle).

As for the legendarily fun-loving Cole and Linda, they come across here as yawningly shallow gadabouts, and we’re given no clue as to what they could possibly have seen in each other. As Linda, a woman who is willing to overlook her husband’s extramarital affairs so long as he keeps them a secret from the public, Ashley Judd is scarily inept, a giggly, beaming helpmate who copes with every crisis by lighting up another cigarette.

Kevin Kline does better as Cole, but he seems basically uncomfortable as the boy from Indiana who discovers he likes boys from Indiana and practically everywhere else in the world. His Porter lacks warmth, humor, compassion and dignity. Maybe the man who turned out "Anything Goes" and "Kiss Me Kate" really was an irresponsible narcissist. If so, why bother to tell his story--why not just listen to his music?

I should point out that at least one song, as performed in the film, is worth listening to. That’s "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," sung in an enticingly lush manner by Natalie Cole. Unfortunately, we are allowed only a brief glimpse of Ms. Cole; what we mostly see as she sings is the corpse of poor Linda Porter, who has literally smoked herself to death. How classy and Cole Porter-like is that?

--GUY FLATLEY