For the uninitiated, "Down with Love" is an affectionate, slightly satirical ode to the Doris Day-Rock Hudson sex farces of the late-'50s/early-'60s, such as 1959's "Pillow Talk," 1961's "Lover Come Back," and 1963's "A New Kind of Lover." Everything has been meticulously designed and staged to make viewers walking into this film feel as if they are instantly transported back to a more innocent time when the subjects of romance and sex didn't mean showing graphic simulations and gratuitous nudity. As brightly directed by Peyton Reed (2000's "Bring It On"), however, "Down with Love" has a rollicking good time with taking this novel premise and skewering it just enough with risque (for the '60s) innuendo and pitch-perfect, eye-winking performances so that audiences will be let in on the joke without making a parody out of the romance and otherwise sincere characters. Think of it as a lighter-toned "Far From Heaven."
As the film opens, the narrator introduces a New York City in which "the time is now, 1962." Barbara Novak (Renee Zellweger), a farmer's daughter from Maine, has arrived in the Big Apple to sell her non-fiction book, "Down with Love," to publishers. A transcendent work that teaches women how to seek out and enjoy sex just as men do without letting marriage and the four-letter "L" word interfere, the release of the book suddenly skyrockets to the top of the bestsellers list and makes Barbara a household name.
Enter suave playboy journalist Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor), "a man's man, ladies man, man about town" who sets out to prove Barbara wrong. His goal: to pose as celibate southern astronaut Zip Martin and woo Barbara to the point of her falling in love with him, thus acquiring great material for an expos‚ on Barbara's fraudulent feminist teachings. What Catcher doesn't expect is to genuinely start to fall for Barbara in return.
Right from the vintage 20th Century Fox logo and title card announcing the film has been shot in Cinemascope, it is as if a cinematic time warp has occurred. The movie does not seem like a 2003 release posing as a 1962 one, but a 1962 feature in which the present day actors have gone back in time to make. First and foremost, "Down with Love" is a technically flawless coup. Everything from the retro costumes by Daniel Orlandi (2003's "Kangaroo Jack") to the candy-colored art direction by Martin Whist (2003's "Phone Booth") to the intentionally artificial production design by Andrew Laws (2000's "Tigerland") are pure perfection. When characters are in moving cars, the background landscapes through the windows are clearly stock footage. When characters gab on the phone, a split-screen is used. Every body motion is hilariously underscored by an over-the-top musical chord. And every frame was clearly shot on a Hollywood soundstage posing as actual New York locations. The result is luscious, inventive, and always dreamy.
When Barbara and best friend editor Vikki Hiller (Sarah Paulson) enter into rooms, they do not merely walk in, they make a shimmying grand entrance in which the act of merely taking off their coats is turned into a musical number. In sheer '60s fashion, Daniel Hyde Pierce takes over the type of role often inhabited by Tony Randall (appearing here as the head of Banner Publishing), playing Catcher's best friend Peter MacMannus (David Hyde Pierce). Although Peter longs to ask Vikki out, there are enough frisky sexual undertones to suggest he really should be going after Catcher. It's a safe bet, however, that Tony Randall's characters were never outright called upon this very fact, as Peter is when Vikki assumes he is gay. Director Peyton Reed and screenwriters Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake delight in taking such old-fashioned conventions and playing them up in a way that moviemakers from that particular era would never have gotten away with.
Cute, although less successful, is a telephone conversation between Barbara and Catcher that mischievously places the split-screen in just the right place to make it seem as if they are in sexually compromising positions. The problem is such a thing was done to much better and imaginative effect in the "Austin Powers" trilogy. The film also falls into the trap of running just a little too long for its own good. With tighter editing, the climax would have notably benefitted, even if the proceedings remains innocently romantic in a way that hasn't been captured quite like this in a very long time.
As the gorgeous and smart Barbara Novak, who fears she isn't as self-assured as she once thought, Renee Zellweger (2002's "Chicago") owns every frame she is in. Zellweger is undoubtedly one of today's best actresses, and she plays the Doris Day type part as if it were her own from the start, exposing wonderful comic timing and avoiding lazy mimicking. Ewan McGregor (2001's "Moulin Rouge") is in every way Zellweger's match, cocky without being conceited and genuine without coming off as a phony. Zellweger and McGregor exaggerate their parts only so much as '50s and '60s screen actors did, remaining truthful to their characters along the way.
In the wrong hands, "Down with Love" could have been a disaster, too mannered and spoofy and condescending. Director Peyton Reed, who showed similar know-how with his witty teen cheerleading comedy, "Bring It On," has gotten it just right. "Down With Love" is funny and it's magical and it's light as a feather. In the final scene, as two lovebirds swing across the New York City landscape from a helicopter chain ladder, it is impossible not to get swept away with the star-crossed characters, nostalgic for a time when love really was all you needed.
Copyright © 2003 Dustin Putman