An attempt to make an early sixties Doris Day-style comedy for modern audiences, Down With Love pits Renée Zellweger’s feminist writer against Ewan McGregor’s womanising journalist.
Down With Love tries to recreate a type of romantic comedy which hasn’t been made for forty years – the kind of late fifties, early sixties battle of the sexes in which Doris Day and Rock Hudson would bicker their way to true love. In a tip of the hat, Doris and Rock’s frequent co-star Tony Randall is given a supporting role as a surly CEO. Retro is big this year: Far From Heaven was Todd Haynes’ attempt to make a 1950s social drama, Steven Spielberg made Catch Me If You Can in the style of a sixties caper movie and Joe Carnahan’s Narc wanted to be a tough seventies police thriller. Down With Love is less ambitious – it only wants to be light-hearted fun and at least in part it succeeds.
It’s 1963 and Barbara Novak (Renée Zellweger) is a feminist author arriving in New York with her first book, which is entitled “Down With Love”. Barbara believes love is what enslaves women and her book encourages the fairer sex to cast their emotions aside and live like men and as men’s equals. No one at her publishing house has much faith in the book but Barbara’s editor (Sarah Paulson) believes in her and has arranged a promotional cover story in a lifestyle magazine. This is to be written by Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor), investigative jounalist and ladies man of Austin Powers proportions. However Block feels such nonsense is beneath him and stands Barbara up repeatedly while he entertains a whole crew of stewardesses (including Star Trek: Voyager’s Jeri Ryan putting on what I think is supposed to be an English accent). Piqued, Barbara promotes her book elsewhere and sees it turn into a national phenomenon. She herself becomes a feminist icon and she takes the opportunity to denounce Catch on TV as the ultimate male chauvinist pig. Catch is offended and concerned that this outbreak of feminism will affect his swinging lifestyle so he sets out to prove that Barbara is as weak-kneed as any other woman by making her fall in love with him.
Once you’ve got past the odd casting (Renée Zellweger as a ball-busting feminist? Ewan McGregor as a sixties sex god?), the leads prove charming enough and they’re well supported by reliable pros like David Hyde Pierce and newcomer Sarah Paulson, a face to watch. In the hands of director Peyton Reed, whose first film Bring It On remains the best teen movie so far this decade, this is for the most part frothy, light-hearted fun. Reed does a pretty decent job of reproducing the look, sound, pacing and tone of a sixties screwball comedy and the script by Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake, who also wrote Legally Blonde 2, has some real wit to it in places. There are some great verbal riffs that I didn’t think anyone had the talent to even attempt anymore. The first half of the movie zips by very pleasantly. Unfortunately, there are a couple of large flies in the ointment.
One is a disconcerting amount of sexual innuendo. Don’t take me for a prude, I’m the last person to get offended by dirty jokes, it just seems self-defeating to go to such lengths to recapture the spirit of a more innocent era and then throw in pages of penis jokes. Putting in material better suited to American Pie 4 is not only inaccurate – censors in 1963 would have had heart failure – but it seems painfully out of place. The low point comes with a split-screen sequence in which Catch and Barbara talk on the phone while exercising and the split-screen is used to give the impression that they’re going down on each other. OK, name the film where Doris Day simulates oral sex on Rock Hudson. Did the filmmmakers think this material was necessary to please today’s audiences? I saw Down With Love in a packed house which had laughed appreciatively up to that point but this scene was greeted with embarassed silence. Besides being inappropriate, it’s also poorly staged. A later set-piece in which David Hyde Pierce is attacked by the gadgets in Catch’s apartment also falls flat. Peyton Reed has a gift for light verbal comedy but he can’t do farce.
The film’s other big handicap is not knowing when to end. After a slightly flabby second half, which spends too much time on Catch and Barbara’s romance, the script supplies a perfect conclusion that is both funny and touching (the scene with the tape recorder in Catch’s apartment). Then, bizarrely, it adds an unnecessary complication and drags on for another fifteen minutes of padding before reaching the exact same resolution. Why? These flaws are irritating and prevent me from recommending you queue up to see Down With Love but they’re not crippling enough to stop it being a decent rent when it’s on video. Problems and all, it’s refreshingly different from the other romantic comedies I’ve seen this year, most of which are just the same film with different actors. If this isn’t a complete success, it gets points for trying.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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