Down With Love Review
Down With Love is an unabashed tip-of-the-hat to the bedroom comedies of the 60s, especially those starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson. It's also a shamelessly romantic comedy set amongst a 'battle of the sexes'. Written by Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake and directed by Peyton Reed (Bring It On), from the very start – the bouncy, animated opening credits sequence – you can tell you're in for quite a nostalgic ride... and one which is both parody and homage at the same time.
Renée Zellweger stars as Barbara Novak, a proto-feminist author who travels down from Maine to New York to promote her book, 'Down With Love' – one which instructs women in how to behave more like men as regards love and sex and, by so doing, become more successful in the workplace. Her editor Vikki Hiller (Sarah Paulson), browbeaten by her male colleagues, comes up with a plan to get Novak's book noticed: an interview with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor). The star journalist of Know Magazine, Block is notorious for being both a ladies' and a man's man – basically James Bond minus the espionage, if you will. He's far too busy womanising to speak to what he imagines is a bolshy, man-hating spinster, so much to the chagrin of his boss, Peter MacMannus (David Hyde Pierce), he blows Novak off with a series of ridiculous excuses. The plot is fairly well signposted for us from this point on. McMannus and Hiller want to get together but seem reliant on their more dominant friends for guidance. Block decides to pretend to be a dorky, 'new man' astronaut to trick Novak into admitting she's fallen in love with him. Of course, as with all such schemes, things don't go quite according to Block's plan.
The film is most definitely a romantic comedy, with perhaps more emphasis on comedy than romance. Restricting itself predominantly to the confines of its chosen period genre, there are no sex scenes, just the odd innuendo and visual sexual gag. Undoubtedly the film goes further than its 60s predecessors would have done in this regard, but that's quite deliberate, a nod to the fact this isn't simply a remake of Pillow Talk but is, instead, a homage being made in a much more liberated time, where women already have a degree of equality in the workplace and in relationships!
This particular brand of comedy relies greatly on timing, and it really matters here that the actors can do their jobs well. McGregor makes a very likable playboy, switching between a sophisticated New York accent and a more 'country' Southern one as he alternates his roles. Sarah Paulson and David Hyde Pierce are remarkable as Vikki Hiller and Peter McMannus, playing best friend and boss (respectively) to the leads... and they almost always steal the scenes they appear in with an effortless-seeming comic mastery. Zellweger, for me, was the least impressive of the main cast, though she does perform admirably in a role that requires her to basically copy Doris Day – her delivery of some fairly epic speeches never fails to impress! It's a very solid cast all in all, and one that gels well together. Rounded out with performances from famous names such as Jeri Ryan (of Star Trek fame) and Tony Randall (erstwhile star of the very bedroom comedies this film pays homage to), the cast has been chosen well and serve the film admirably. Director Peyton Reed even notes that all of the extras were chosen for having a 60s look; there's been a lot of work making sure this film looks good – and it does.
The music is almost a character in itself. Scored by Marc Shaiman, it harkens back to a past where incidental music followed even the slightest gesture from the actors; even an eyebrow flutter gets its own musical cue. This heightens both the humour and the romance of the film and it's one of the most impressive things for me about this production. Shaiman is also responsible for the song which plays over the end credits, written specifically for the film and performed by Ewan McGregor and Renée Zellweger (both fresh from their musical experiences in Moulin Rouge and Chicago).
Because this film attempts to recreate 60s New York as seen through the eyes of Hollywood, the look and feel of it is almost as important as the script and the acting. Costumes, shot composition, make-up, backgrounds and set all need to really hit the mark... and, thankfully, do so magnificently. Using digital enhancements for colours of costumes, the team has managed to reproduce that super-vibrant Technicolour feel, sometimes so much so that the colours seem too bright to modern eyes. Reed has recreated Cinemascope shooting techniques, which make full use of the widescreen aspect, and he also utilises split-screens to help in the homage to the bedroom comedies. The costumes were all tailor-made for the actors, so they not only look right for the period but also look brand new! Stock footage has been used for backgrounds (some stock footage from old Doris Day/Rock Hudson films, in fact, to heighten the homage effect), and there's also use of matte painted backdrops for scenery seen outside windows (rather than the more modern and realistic-looking 'translights'). Everything has been thought of and recreated lovingly.
But there is a problem with all of this slavish attention to detail and painful need to recreate the old bedroom comedy style: sometimes in Down With Love it just goes a little too far, and a jarring sense of 2003 mentality kicks in. Novak's pre-date dance around her apartment is one such almost painful moment, the 'infamous' (according to the director) split-screen full sequence of visual innuendo is another. For me, some of the in-jokes were a bit too much, and that just made me lose that willing suspension of disbelief. Conversely, the extra twist at the end that the writers have added (because we all know the original bedroom comedies would have ended at a different point in the story) works really well, even though it's a little confused in actual exposition.
The film is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Using CinemaScope filming techniques allowed Reed to get full effect from a widescreen presentation (amusingly he says in his commentary that they decided not to worry about how it ended up looking in pan & scan!). The transfer is of a quality we've come to expect with recent films. There are a few incidents of artefacting but I was never sure whether these were meant to be part of the film, to make it look a little older (grainier) than it, in fact, is. As mentioned in the main review, this is a film of glorious colours and they are very clear and distinct in this gorgeous transfer.
The primary soundtrack is 5.1 Dolby Digital and presents the wonderful soundtrack and songs remarkably well. There's not a huge use of the surround sound features, but then there's not a lot of need for them. Where they are used (for example, for thunder) it definitely adds an extra dimension. Overall dialogue is clear throughout – this is extremely necessary as the witty conversations are sometimes rattled out at a fast pace to get in the full musicality of the language. And, as mentioned above, the music never gets in the way; instead it subtly augments the viewing experience. (And yes, optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing (HOH) are provided.)
The main menu on this disc is particularly flash, with a wonderful 'zoomy' feel to the fluid animation and many clever transitions as it works its way from the initial loading to the final selections screen. It in many ways echoes the opening credits sequence for the film itself and this can only be a good thing. Beyond this, however, the menus become slightly more staid: for instance, both the scene selection menu and the special features menu feature completely static backgrounds.
Truly vexing, however, is how this DVD begins with that most-reviled of all distributor tack-ons: a forced march through a series of adverts for their other properties. I have to wonder when studios will ever learn that the last thing a customer wants when she pops a brand-new disc in her player is to have to wade through 12 minutes or so of trailers for other films before being permitted to access the main menu and play the film on the disc itself. Why can't these companies take a lesson from animé distributors, who place the trailers as an option under the special features menu, so you can watch them if you're interested but not every single time you want to play the DVD? It used to be that you could always 'chapter skip' through any initial adverts to get to the main menu... but that's not an option on this disc.
There's a fairly impressive number of added extras on this DVD release. Some are more or less bubblegum, but others do help to flesh out understanding of the film and how it was made. The biggest and most impressive of the extras is the feature-length commentary by Peyton Reed, the enthusiastic and ebullient director. He never stops talking throughout, and technical details of how shots were composited are interspersed with anecdotes, references to films being paid homage to, and other genuinely interesting details. It's patently obvious that the film was a work of love for Reed (and for many of the team involved) and it really is a delight to listen to this commentary track. A particularly nice feature of this commentary is that you can play it as subtitles while watching the film with its original audio track (in other words, you have the option of viewing it as a 'text commentary' rather than a standard 'audio commentary' which overrides the film's dialogue).
The video clips used in the film are presented as part of the extras in full-screen. So we have the full music video of 'Here's To Love' – the song written to accompany the end credits. Shown over the end credits in a smaller version, it's good to have a chance to see Renée and Ewan strutting their stuff and seemingly having a lot of fun with a musical number. The other video clip is Barbara Novak's appearance on 'Guess My Name', where Catcher not only gets to see her beauty, but also where she names him as an example of the very worst kind of man – thus setting up his big scheme to show her up. This one is perhaps a little less fun to see in fullscreen, but it certainly rounds out the extras.
The HBO special is about as bland as all HBO specials are; there's a few small interviews with stars, some facts about the film, and of course the obligatory clips of the action... but that's about it. It's mostly promotional fluff and runs like a more interesting, extended trailer, as it's designed to. It's accompanied by six short documentaries which cover specific topics such as costumes, music, location, split screen techniques, and, yes, Tony Randall. They're all kept short and sweet – interesting to watch, but really leaving me wanting to know even more! One of the amusing things about the documentaries is that everyone involved in the film appears to have a real love for it: for example, Ewan McGregor mentions how he was keen for there to be musical numbers while Marc Shaiman (music) and Daniel Orlandi (costumes) effusively tell us how they were born to make this film.
Thedeleted scenes were also an interesting watch. Mostly cut out for reasons of timing and plot development, it has to be said that there are some really nice scenes in here. All can be viewed as they were originally recorded, or with commentary by Peyton Reed (subtitled as well as spoken). His commentary here is slightly less impressive than that for the main feature – but that's mostly because he says how sad he was to lose each scene, which takes up time!
Another good feature is the blooper reel. OK, so some of them are people genuinely flubbing lines (not unexpected with the speed and complications of some of the dialogue), but there are some brilliantly comedic moments. David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Paulson are particularly funny when they mess up, but there are also some gems from McGregor and Zellweger too. I really enjoyed watching the outtakes; it certainly looks as if the cast had a lot of fun while making the film.
The final two extras are quite small. The first is a filmed testimonial to the book 'Down With Love' advertising Novak's new career and opportunities for women. It was never used in the film but will appeal to fans of Jeri Ryan, who stars in it (and also has a part in the film as one of Catcher's conquests). Finally the promo for the soundtrack is included.
Ok, so it's not a film that everybody will automatically love. That being said it's a very clever tribute to the old bedroom comedies and the story, acting, and environment make it a very enjoyable watch. The extras are a nice addition to the package and make the DVD good value for fans of the film (or for those yet to see it).