Loaded with contradictions Porter (Kevin Kline) is a small-town Midwesterner who becomes a Parisian bon vivant an openly gay man who maintains a relatively happy marriage to his wife Linda Thomas (Ashley Judd) and a gifted tunesmith who actually enjoys slumming in Hollywood. But when a riding accident leaves him crippled he becomes increasingly bitter and lonely right up until his death in 1964. The movie opens with a ridiculous framing device after Porter's death. He is greeted by the angel Gabriel (Jonathan Pryce) who begins a staged re-creation of his life featuring his various friends and foes while Porter rails at their deaf images incessantly like Ebeneezer Scrooge confronting his past. To make matters worse Kline's old man makeup is so creepily extra-terrestrial it makes him look like Mandy Patinkin in Alien Nation. It is with great relief that we then cut to glorious 1930s Paris as Kline meets Judd's lovely ex-pat divorcee and they embark on their very odd alliance. At first she condones his affairs even arranges them but soon his indiscretion and rampant promiscuity threaten to destroy their marriage.
Kline plays Porter as an unabashed sexual predator for the first hour of the movie seemingly unaffected by the hurt he causes his wife. And in the final act predictably Kline strains for pathos as Porter becomes old and bitter. Kline's acting baggage catches up with him
here to ill effect. He's been arching his eyebrows and delivering preposterous dialogue in witty deadpan style so well for so many years that when he consults a doctor on a leg operation one half expects his character to request a brain transplant a la Dr. Rod Randall in Soapdish. He's already got the gold man that Jim Carrey covets (for A Fish Called Wanda). But his "serious" turns (this My Life as a House The Emperor's Club) are just painful. Judd fares slightly better as his muse confidante groupie and pimp. Unlike so many actresses she isn't overbearingly modern. And even her affectations like inserting an accented French word into each line fit the character. This could have been the role that returned Judd to the earlier promise of her work in Ruby in Paradise and/or Heat--if it wasn't constantly interrupted by the framing device and the music.
Speaking of which rather than allowing the power of the music itself to illustrate Porter's wondrous gifts the director (and maybe some MGM marketing suits) decided to use modern pop singers to sing the songs in elaborate musical numbers. It's like watching a Mad TV parody of American Dreams. Alanis Morissette dressed as a flapper warbles
"Let's Do It" as if it's "You Oughta Know." Sheryl Crow shrieks "Begin the Beguine" as if her leg is caught in a bear trap. And in a movie that tries so hard to convince us of the gay lyrical subtext (OK we get it) what else are we to make of the musical finale "Blow Gabriel Blow"? Irwin Winkler should just stop trying to direct. He is one of the most acclaimed producers in Hollywood (Rocky Raging Bull Goodfellas among countless others) yet as a director he has a knack for taking listless subjects (Senate hearings the Internet) and making them even more boring. With De-Lovely he goes from the mundane to the ridiculous. When Porter falls off the horse Winkler cross-cuts to Linda in Paris sniffing the air as if she can somehow sense his danger. What is she his twin as well? The direction is so ham-fisted that when a character coughs you know instantly it is implying a painful rheumatic death to come if in the distant future. Even the death of a small child is milked shamelessly for drama since the script (Jay Cocks) provides none. If there is any reason to watch the movie it's the costumes (Giorgio Armani) and the vivid re-creations of pre-War Paris Venice Broadway and Hollywood. If only we could stay there. Just as we settle comfortably into the period old man Porter returns raging at the darkness his prosthetic skin threatening to melt off and go flying in every direction.
With four days left before his execution notoriously reticent death row inmate David Gale (Kevin Spacey) decides at last to share his story with the press. He chooses as his vessel reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) who's just spent a week in the slammer for refusing to reveal her sources on a kiddie porn cover story. As Gale's story unfolds (and we see it in flashback) Bitsey becomes convinced he's innocent and she and her intern Zack (Gabriel Mann) begin a race against the clock to discover the truth that will save him. Sound like an overblown blurb from a movie studio's press files? Apologies for that but the best way to talk about this story's climactic points is to resort to hyperbolic clichés of this ilk--the movie's key moments are without exception melodramatic and overblown. Nonetheless most of the movie is suspenseful the story has several interesting (I wouldn't go so far as compelling) twists and there are plenty of reasons to root for Gale's cause especially if like him and admittedly like me you're a political liberal who fancies yourself at least somewhat intellectual.
If there's one thing that defines Kevin Spacey's acting style it's his unparalleled ability to discourse at length on philosophical minutiae a gift that undoubtedly contributed to his getting this role in the first place. But Spacey gets to stretch a bit more playing Gale--the professorial character in his pre-death row life was a loose cannon even by academia's standards: he partied with his students talked about fantasy and desire in class and belonged to Death Watch a liberal advocacy group opposed to the death penalty. Beyond that his personal life was a disaster. His wife was having an affair with a Spaniard Gale was a borderline alcoholic and his ego was the size of a generously proportioned watermelon. So there are plenty of challenges for Spacey in the part--both in the flashbacks and the death row sequences--and he obviously embraces them all; unfortunately sometimes he squeezes the life out of them in the process foregoing for example the tragic nuances of real alcoholism for the stumbling sobriquets of an overblown town-drunk philosopher. The equally gifted Laura Linney as Constance--Gale's stalwart friend fellow professor co-director of Death Watch and alleged murder victim--finds herself in less familiar territory. Her character is complex yet remarkably one-dimensional for most of the movie which leaves the talented actress turning--albeit reluctantly--to melodrama for support. Winslet too is on unfamiliar ground with an American accent (quite well done old chap-ette) a mission and a bitchiness that's too little seen from this pristine young girl.
It's truly unfortunate that director Alan Parker didn't keep a tighter handle on The Life of David Gale's more dramatic moments since had they come off better this would have been a more even and generally more watchable film. As it is each of the talented lead actors has a scene in which they really let loose on the hysterical wailing waterworks--Winslet lucky gal has two. They may not be bad enough to make you cringe necessarily but they're obviously overplayed. The film would have benefited from a wail-o-meter that would have allowed the bawling to go so far and only so far. All that aside though this film is ultimately less melodramatic than its equivalent TV movie version would have (and probably has) been--and that leads me to my final point. The Life of David Gale is about what TV pundits would call a hot-button issue and while the public is intelligent enough not to be emotionally swayed by the hue and cry of activists on either side of the argument we can--and by God we will--be entertained by it. So I just want to say thank you Hollywood for once again one-upping the 6 o'clock news and for showing that even discussions of the most important issues of our time can be squeezed into a two-hour movie and manipulated in the interests of suspense and drama.