Down with Love (2003) / Comedy-Romance
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sexual humor and dialogue
Running Time: 100 min.
Cast: Renee Zellwegger, Ewan McGregor, David Hyde Pierce, Sarah Paulson, Tony Randall
Director: Peyton Reed
Screenplay: Eve Ahlert, Dennis Drake
Review published May 18, 2003
In Nurse Betty, Renee Zellwegger plays a woman that is referred to by Morgan Freeman's character as a "modern-day Doris Day," and I remarked that the same could be said of Zellwegger herself, with her similar looks, charm and sweetness. Obviously I'm not the only one to make that comparison (and probably not the first,) as she is the natural choice to play like Doris in Down with Love, which is at once both an homage and a satire of the Doris Day/Rock Hudson films of the past. Rock and Doris would appear in three movies together: Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, and Send Me No Flowers, and Down with Love can be seen as a retooling of them (well, the first two anyway) into a more modern feminist revisionism, utilizing the "battle of the sexes" plots and injecting them with some of the more topical real movements going on at the time that they largely ignore, most notably the Women's Lib movement.
Renee plays Barbara Novak, a gal from Maine who has spun a new philosophy for women into a new book called "Down with Love," and heads to New York City to shop it around to publishers. This book tells women that the only way they are going to finally get ahead in this man's world is to use men the way they have been used, divorcing sex from love, and using chocolate to supplant the feelings they may attribute to romantic feelings for their suitors. It's not easy to convince the all-male boards of publishing companies to release a book that would jeopardize their ways of thinking, but Know magazine editor Peter MacMannus wants an interview with the woman, and he sends Catcher Block, their star reporter and notorious ladies man, out to get the scoop. Block takes his assignment with the seriousness as he takes all others, i.e. none, but while he spends time avoiding meeting Barbara, her book gets featured on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and becomes an overnight world-wide bestseller. Women everywhere begin saying "down with love" and the men of the world do not like it one bit, having to share household chores, and not being able to use love to get women in the sack. It especially affects Block's once-rampant sex life, so he makes it a crusade to get the dirt on Novak, getting her to fall in love with him through trickery, and to expose it to the world in an expose for his magazine.
Down with Love is the second film in recent years to re-craft an older film with modern sensibilities, following Todd Haynes much more serious work, Far from Heaven. However, even if the themes regarding the empowerment of women in the workplace and in gender identity are serious stuff, the screenplay by Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake plays everything light and fluffy, exactly on target as the Day/Hudson send-up this is supposed to be. The casting is perfection, as there's no actress working today who fits more securely in Day's shoes than Zellwegger, while Ewan McGregor, although not built like Rock, is an actor who can be both the woman's man and the man's man, as can play the macho role (he was Obi-Wan) and the romantic crooner (see Moulin Rouge) with equal finesse.
David Hyde Pierce is perfect for the male sidekick role normally played by Tony Randall, exuding none of the virile male traits of the lead, while too easily bossed around by the ladies for them to take seriously as a mate, with the underlying premise being that he is obviously gay. Where the old movies could only hint at the idea, Down with Love fully exploits the homosexuality issue to a good degree, although the ultimate real-life irony is that "man's man" Rock Hudson was, in actual fact, gay, while Tony "Stud" Randall in recent years married a woman fifty years younger and even in his seventies is virile enough to sire two kids with her. By the way, Tony also appears in this film, reversing his stereotypically clawless role as the head of the publishing company out to put an end to Novak's notions because it's hurting his love life with his wife...and his mistress.
However, none of this would have amounted to much without the perfect recreation of the Sixties fluff comedy look of the film, complete with sumptuous Technicolor vibe, light jazz and lounge soundtrack, gaudy wardrobe, split-screen conversations, process shots, and none of the camera techniques that have been development in the last 40 years that would suggest this is a modern film. Peyton Reed's (Bring It On) direction is right on when it comes to keeping the right look and tone throughout, with an energy and charisma that will have you loving the nostalgic old-fashioned storyline, even though it is clearly lampooning it at the same time, with affection I might add.
Down with Love is must-see viewing for anyone who is intimately familiar with Doris Day, Rock Hudson, and the light romantic comedies from the early Sixties. If you aren't, some of the jokes will likely be lost on you, but the spirit and charm of the film is still infectious. Viewing this may actually pique your interest in renting some of them, and you'll laugh knowingly at how brilliantly the look and feel had been recreated. In this era of dumb romantic comedies, it's a refreshing change of pace to see something as smart and different as Down with Love, which skewers dumb romantic comedies of old with lavish and loving delight.
©2003 Vince Leo