Film Reviews: Wednesday, May 15, 2003
Down With Love\r\nStarring Ewan McGregor and Renée Zellweger. Directed by Peyton Reed. Written by Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake. Rated PG-13.\r\n
Sex and the Sixties

Forget The Matrix! The dazzlingly retro Down With Love has the real fireworks.


Set in 1962 Manhattan, Down With Love stars Ewan McGregor as millionaire playboy Catcher Block, who rides a helicopter to work, strolls into his office wearing a white tuxedo and shades, and somehow finds time in his busy schedule of boozing and chasing women to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for a magazine called Know. (The magazine’s title is the subject of much wordplay, especially after a rival magazine called Now springs up.) With his jet-setting, class-A, swanky lifestyle, he’s a one-man Rat Pack.

But alas! It’s all exploded by Barbara Novak (Renée Zellweger), a New England librarian who has just written a feminist manifesto that shares the movie’s title. It tells her readers that romantic love is a trap and that women will forever be men’s slaves until women achieve equality in the workplace and treat sex as unsentimentally as men do. With his girlfriends catching Down With Love fever, the book outselling Profiles in Courage, and the author schmoozing on The Ed Sullivan Show, Catcher vows to expose Barbara as a fraud by making her fall for him, thus proving that what all women really want is a man. He does this by posing as a diffident, bespectacled NASA astronaut (and McGregor’s aw-shucks act, replete with Southern drawl, is extremely funny).

You might think that this stylized, brightly colored film is a musical, especially with both of its lead actors having recently starred in musicals. It isn’t, but the movie’s unpredictable energy is such that it looks natural when the characters do burst into song and dance. Early on, Zellweger and Sarah Paulson enter a restaurant and simultaneously take off their coats (one yellow, one checked) to reveal that each one’s dress and coat lining exactly match the other one’s coat. They then execute a couple of dance steps just to top off the effect, and saunter over to their table in perfect unison.

That little move is typical of the gorgeous unreality of this comedy, which zealously copies the style of the Rock Hudson/Doris Day sex farces like Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back. It’s not just in the film’s eye-popping look, although the work by cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, production designer Andrew Laws, and costume designer Daniel Orlandi will be required viewing for design and fashion enthusiasts. It’s in the Borscht Belt-flavored dialogue, too — Barbara’s best friend and editor (Paulson) appraises her own love life thus, “The men who resent my success won’t give me the time of day. And the men who respect my success won’t give me the time of night.” For better or worse, you don’t hear dialogue like that in most Hollywood movies today.

If only the film were more ambitious. The sex farces of the 1960s were Hollywood’s failed attempts to deal with the sexual revolution. The old-guard filmmakers behind these flicks were as flummoxed by the decade’s social changes as most other people. For all their light entertainment value, none of those ’60s movies can be considered classics now; their sophistication is ersatz, all attitude and no insight. Down With Love’s affection for those films leads it to repeat the same mistake. With its extensive litany of quaintly racy double entendres, this movie could easily have been made in 1962. Would it have been hard to inject a few enlightened quips about the era without reducing the movie to camp or lessening its sparkle? If you’re expecting a smart contemporary take on how sexual mores have shifted over time, you’ll be disappointed.

Still, it’s squaresville to complain when director Peyton Reed (Bring It On) and his cast attack their roles so zestily. Jeri Ryan is surprisingly sharp as a randy English airline stewardess. As Catcher’s boss and best friend, David Hyde Pierce uses the same shtick he’s been doing on Frasier for years, but he looks much fresher in a role that Tony Randall often played in the 1960s. Randall himself pops in for a cameo and looks little the worse for wear after 50 years as an actor.

McGregor slips into his playboy role effortlessly, in contrast to Zellweger, whose every head tilt and change of expression are carefully planned. This isn’t wrong; his smoothness and her snappiness go well together and are appropriate to their characters. There’s also a bit that’s probably the most amazing of the movie — and of Zellweger’s career: Just when you think the plot will subside into the familiar resolution in which the woman finds out she’s been lied to, Barbara turns the tables and explains the counterplot she’s been hatching in a jaw-dropping, minutes-long monologue that’s delivered in a single take and seemingly in a single breath. When the film finally cuts to McGregor, his aghast reaction seems like the only one possible.

All in all, Down With Love’s cocktail of verve, splashy décor, and genuine laughs is heady stuff; I walked out of the theater feeling upbeat and slightly dazed. Other recent films such as Catch Me If You Can and the Austin Powers movies have tried to capture the Swinging Sixties on film, but none have done so with the same infectious sense of fun. It’s way groovy, daddy-o.

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