De-Lovely, a biography of Cole Porter (1891-1964), has a relatively accessible "avant-garde" framing device, in which the elderly songwriter is taken to a theater by the archangel Gabriel for a revue in which his actual family, friends, and associates, revived in their youth, put on a show about his adult life. Though the life unfolds chronologically, for some reason the passage of time isn't marked (other than by a succession of obvious hairpieces), and there's no world beyond the theater, of course. And yet the movie offers nothing like an interpretation of Porter's life, certainly not one that necessitates the framing device. (I wish they'd given the playwright John Guare, a lover of old show tunes, a crack at reshuffling Porter's deck.)
By raising our expectations the distracting frame merely emphasizes a common paradox in artist biographies: the subject's accomplishments are the reason for the movie but it wouldn't have been made if his life hadn't been full of confusion and torment. (This was true of Frida (2002) and also of What's Love Got to Do With It? (1993) even though Tina Turner pulled herself together before the end. In the future, look for a biopic about Courtney Love but not Madonna.) You end up feeling the opposite of envy for the subject. All that talent and all the triumphs and adulation couldn't begin to make up for the anguish.
This is odd in the case of Cole Porter because the movie itself shows that he takes everything too lightly. An independently wealthy homosexual, he marries a highly companionable and beautiful socialite who accommodates herself readily to his nocturnal prowling and gives him the professional drive he lacks. All he has to do is produce the songs, which he's been writing for amusement and playing at private parties while lounging away the late '10s in Paris anyway. At first Cole and Linda Porter seem like Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald with the money they wanted and without the personal disturbances. The French reportedly referred to them as "les Colporteurs," i.e., "the peddlers," which, given their combined unearned wealth, seems like a pointedly ironic pun, until Linda begins superintending her husband's career. He becomes a spectacular success but that can't keep trouble from their door.
The movie could have worked despite its squareness and downtrending arc (miscarriage, blackmail, the famous horseriding accident, tuberculosis, amputation), but for a few central blunders, foremost among them the miscasting of Kevin Kline as Porter. Kline gets good reviews without fail, maybe because he always seems to take himself more seriously than the occasion warrants, which is the opposite of what we're told is Porter's nature. Even in comedy Kline is showing us how it oughta be done, though he makes me laugh much less than almost any comedy star. (If only they'd cast Robert Downey, Jr. instead. Why not Jim Carrey, for that matter? At least he might have had fun with it.) Kline has the vanity of a theatrical star without the commanding style, high or low: all ham, no glaze. (Think of Kevin Spacey for telling contrast.) He does know a few stage tricks, though: the way he speaks to Porter's famous friends, particularly the way he hails Monty Woolley, somehow relegates them irretrievably to supporting status (as if all beings acknowledged him as the sole source of radiance).