reviewed by Ken Hanke
When Down With Love works — which it does almost all the time — it’s because it’s not condescending. This charming brainchild of TV writers Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake (The Nanny, Maggie Winters) and director Peyton Reed (local trivia: he’s from Raleigh) is part spoof and part homage.
Reed has a firm eye on the glossy Ross Hunter-produced romantic comedies of the 1950s and ’60s, most specifically the three (yes, there really were only three) that co-starred Doris Day and Rock Hudson. However, the plot mimics none of these films, having more in common with the 1964 movie “adaptation” of Helen Gurley Brown’s book, Sex and the Single Girl, which featured Natalie Wood as a very fictionalized Brown and Tony Curtis as a reporter. Indeed, once all the plot elements of Down With Love finally unfold, Zellweger’s Barbara Novack character can be read as a parody of Brown’s filmic concept.
The tone of Down With Love, however, is pure Hunter-Day-Hudson, doing for those films in comedic terms what Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven did for the Ross Hunter-Douglas Sirk dramas from the same era, and in much the same way. Again, we’re presented with a movie that seems less an evocation of that earlier time than a rediscovered artifact.
Down With Love looks, feels and plays like a movie from 1962, not a movie about 1962. Yes, it deals more openly with things than a movie from that time could have, but that’s the only significant difference. What’s refreshing is that the film neatly sidesteps the superior “modern” tone that creeps into other notable recent movies that in some way depict that era (think Auto-Focus and Catch Me if You Can, where all the early-’60s trappings are just there). At no time does Down With Love cop that “Oh, aren’t these people so quaint” attitude.
From the very onset, it’s obvious that the filmmakers got it right. The movie opens with the old 20th Century Fox logo, complete with the added title card noting that Down With Love is “A Cinemascope Production” (that is, Fox’s original anamorphic wide-screen process designed to give the viewer a movie-going experience that TV couldn’t offer). This title card is followed by clever animated titles in the style of a 1960s DePatie-Freleng or Maurice Binder opening-credit sequence. There’s nary a false note here, nor with any surface in Down With Love’s impeccable recreation of a Manhattan that never existed anywhere but in the movies (the backdrop “view” from Barbara’s posh apartment manages to contain the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty all at once).
The movie’s setup is a bit more openly racy than that of its model films: Barbara Novack has written a book called Down With Love, which exhorts women to achieve success in a man’s world by eschewing romance; not sex, mind you, just romance. Barbara extols the gospel of woman treating men the same way men treat women. Except for her editor, Vikki Hiller (Sarah Paulson), the publishing company isn’t all that interested in promoting Barbara’s work. (Anyone who’s ever written a book will get a good laugh out of the scene where Barbara is taken to Scribner’s to see the single copy of her tome “displayed” on the shelf.)
Vikki’s attempts to get publicity for Barbara via an interview with “ladies’ man, man’s man, man about town” Catcher Block (McGregor) fall apart when Block keeps canceling on her because of the revolving door of stewardesses going in and out of his apartment. Vikki, however, gets the book plugged on The Ed Sullivan Show when, by happy chance, the previously booked Singing Nun has to cancel because she fell off her motor scooter. (Down With Love is fearless in its assumption that the viewer will get jokes grounded in ’60s pop culture and politics.)
Barbara’s book becomes a huge hit, and women everywhere take its message to heart — even to the extent that Catcher Block soon finds his dance card lamentably empty. It then becomes his mission to destroy Barbara’s message by making her fall in love with him — so he poses as a shy, well-mannered rocket scientist from the Deep South.
Yes, this is all a variant of Rock Hudson’s playboy masquerading as a courtly Texan in Pillow Talk, but there’s a difference as the film’s plot unspools in a series of pleasant surprises and variations on the original. These culminate in a jaw-droppingly long speech (in one take) from Barbara that sorts out the plot, followed by a development that is at once expected and unexpected, which includes the most delightful word-play dialogue exchange since the heyday of Preston Sturges.
There are playful evocations of scenes from the real model films — most notably an hysterical use of split-screen that ups the sexual ante of a similar bit in Pillow Talk, plus an agreeable and unforced inclusion of the cinematic conventions of 1962 (look at the use of rear-screen anytime the characters are in a car).
Granted, the Austin Powers movies did all these things, too, but this is bolder — Down With Love means for the viewer to suspend disbelief and take everything as real unto itself. And this works as its own kind of reality, thanks in no small part to the luminous presence of McGregor and Zellweger, not to mention Sarah Paulson (who shows the same kind of comic style as Paula Prentiss) and David Hyde Pierce (who brilliantly evokes the patented Tony Randall second-lead character). Tony Randall, a 1950s-’60s icon, actually has a small role as the head of the publishing company responsible for putting out Barbara’s book — a clever move that anchors the film with a sense of legitimacy.
Down With Love may all be largely insubstantial fun, but it’s undeniably so — and sweet-tempered. Here is one of the few cases where making something “like they used to” genuinely works.