Down With Love
Director : Peyton Reed
Screenplay : Eve Ahlert & Dennis Drake
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Renée Zellweger (Barbara Novak), Ewan McGregor (Catcher Block), David Hyde Pierce (Peter MacMannus), Sarah Paulson (Vikki Hiller), Tony Randall (Theodore Banner)
Credit should be given where credit is due: In Down With Love, director Peyton Reed (Bring It On) and his production design team have done a meticulous job of recreating the candy-colored modernist mise-en-scéne of the early-1960s Doris Day-Rock Hudson sex comedies. As a bit of wink-wink postmodern pastiche, it's nearly flawless in its recreation of a cinematic recreation of both place and time (that being New York City in 1962), but there's something inherently hollow about the whole enterprise. Down With Love manages to recreate a bygone cinematic era, but it fails to endow that recreation with any spirit other than its beaming pride in its own cleverness.
Stepping into the Doris Day role is Renée Zellweger as Barbara Novack, a beautiful and brainy writer from Maine who crashes the Big Apple with Down With Love, her pink-covered manifesto on how women should given up on romance in order to forward their careers and achieve equal standing with men in the workplace (sex, of course, is not forbidden, as long as it is done “a la carte”). Ewan McGregor steps into Rock Hudson's shoes as the admittedly well-named Catcher Block, described in the film as a “ladies' man, man's man, man about town.” Your basic swinging bachelor-type with wind-proof hair and ridiculously white teeth, Catcher is also a star reporter for Know, a men's magazine, and he is determined to be the one who upends Barbara's bid to revolutionize the battle between the sexes by changing the roles.
To do that, he must make Barbara go against her own creed, which means he must make her fall in love with him. He can't do that as Catcher, though, so he dons a false identity as a goofy, bespectacled astronaut from Texas who does everything right by treating her with respect, taking her out on the town, and refraining from any sexual advances, thus proving that he wants a relationship that is emotional, not just physical. Of course, Barbara just wants to hop in bed, which is the one thing Catcher denies her.
A running subplot involves David Hyde Pierce as Peter MacMannus Catcher's editor at Know (the role that would have been filled by Hudson's frequent supporting actor, Tony Randall, who shows up in a brief cameo as the owner of a publishing company). True to the genre's form, Peter is uptight, meticulous, unsure of himself, and plagued by 20 neuroses (in one of the movie's funnier lines, Catcher tells Peter he knew him back when he only had 12). Peter wants to get together with Vikki Hiller (Sarah Paulson), Barbara's editor, but Vikki has transformed herself into a “Down With Love Girl,” even though she secretly just wants to get married.
Down With Love certainly has energy to spare, and it is intermittently funny. The primary source of humor is the constant double entendres supplied by the dialogue, which is written with zip and panache by screenwriters Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake and delivered with precision by the game cast (some of the jokes feel worthy of Three's Company, though, including a secretary misinterpreting an overheard conversation in which Catcher and Peter are comparing the length of their socks). Physical gags about Catcher's remote-controlled bachelor pad don't come off very well, but a split-screen telephone conversation between Barbara and Catcher that turns their innocent discussion into a physical display of the one thing that never actually happens in the film-sex-is memorably funny and clever.
Again, though, all of it feels so patently fake (which is one of the points) that it becomes difficult to see the movie as anything other than a well-produced stunt lavished in bubble-gum hues and eye-catching costumes. Not that the original movies on which Down With Love was modeled were masterpieces of comedic form, but they were of their time and place and they spoke well to an audience on the brink of the sexual revolution. Down With Love tries to do the same thing, but it's speaking an faux-updated version of an outdated language, and any message it's trying to get across about gender and sexuality in the modern world (then and now) is hopelessly muddled.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick