In a "This Is Your Life" style of production, an aging Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) enters an old, vacant theater where he is surrounded by a cast of people he has known over the years. The legendary composer's story then unfolds in a series of flashbacks depicting key scenes from his life, using his lyrics he wrote to provide much of the narrative.
At a swell party in Paris, the dashing piano player meets Linda Lee Thomas (Ashley Judd). The beautiful divorcee agrees to marry him even after he confesses the rumors about his secret obsessions are true. (His character breezily explains he wants to experience all kinds of love, and he can't find it in the same person or even the same gender.)
Falling in love with his music and talent, Linda is willing to tolerate his personal passion for other men, as long as he keeps up appearances during daylight hours. She sweetly explains, "You don't have to love me the way I love you, Cole. Just love me."
Using her social influence and society connections, Linda propels her husband's career opportunities from Europe to New York to Hollywood. Simultaneously, she steers him away from some of his boyfriends, while giving her blessing to others. However, their de-lovely marital arrangement is compromised as Cole repeatedly misbehaves and puts his future in jeopardy.
When his private affairs threaten to go public, Linda chides, "I've never asked you to change - just be discreet." Having allowed him to indulge his guilty pleasures night and day, year after year, the faithful wife is no longer sure she still believes anything goes. As his insatiable appetite eats away at Linda's amiable attitude, the closest thing to an apology Cole offers is, "I didn't know how much my happiness would hurt us."
Surprisingly, it is a tragic turn of events that offers hope for fixing the breaking relationship. Forced to lean more and more upon Linda's good graces, Cole gains the strength to be there for her when it is her turn to need him.
This is at least the second attempt to make a biographical movie of Cole Porter's life. The first, Night and Day (1947), starring Cary Grant and Alexis Smith has been criticized for being too sanitized in its portrayal. If such is the case, then De-lovely can be accused of fixating on Porter's homosexual habits -although that term is not uttered once in the film's over two-hour run time.
But viewers won't miss the point. Despite veiled dialogue, plenty of visual evidence is provided, including men dancing together and kissing each other on the lips, male prostitutes at a gay bar, and a "morning after" scene where one man finishes dressing while the other is shown topless in bed. There is an even more detailed sequence involving a heterosexual couple, with a man and woman seen in bed after spending the night together (no explicit nudity is shown).
Other concerns for parents will be some mild profanities, drinking socially as well as for artistic inspiration and relieving stress, and chain-smoking lead characters.
In an effort to appeal to contemporary audiences, popular artists play the parts of cast members in Porter's various musicals, and sing some of his famous songs - such as Sheryl Crow (Begin the Beguine), Elvis Costello (Let's Misbehave), Diana Krall (Just One of Those Things), Alanis Morissettte (Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love) and Robbie Williams (It's De-Lovely).
Film creators should be complemented for the unique way they have used Porter's music to carry the emotion and advance the plot in the film. Yet fans should be warned -- after hearing his songs in this context, any innocence you may have imagined in his witty ditties will be lost forever.