"These Down with Love girls! It's revenge against men! And it's all your fault, lover boy!"—Peter MacMannus
For a brief period in late 1950s and early 1960s, there was a special brand of bedroom comedy that reflected the particular sensibilities of post-War America before the beginning of the sexual revolution. Entries in this little subgenre include That Touch of Mink (1962) with Cary Grant and Doris Day, and Sex and the Single Girl (1964) starring Lauren Bacall and Tony Curtis. But the most famous of these sex comedies are those pairing Doris Day with Rock Hudson, among them Pillow Talk (1959), Lover Come Back (1961), and Send Me No Flowers (1964).
Although these films, through regular television broadcasts, have remained familiar to those coming of age after the 1960s, they don't have a reputation as important works. Because of their lack of cynicism, images of a squeaky-clean America, and heavy reliance on double-entendres that no longer raise eyebrows, they don't hold up nearly as well as their predecessors, the screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s.
So, why on earth would anyone want to pay homage to such films? And can an homage to fluff itself be anything of significance?
Facts of the Case
Perky Midwesterner Barbara Novak (Renée Zellweger, Chicago) arrives in 1963 New York to get her book, Down with Love, published. The book, which encourages women to achieve in the workplace and substitute chocolate for sex until they're capable of compartmentalizing the act with the same casual flippancy as their male counterparts, will prove to be the first shot fired in the sexual revolution. But first Novak and her editor Vicki Hiller (Sarah Paulson) must get the book publicized despite the apathy of the all-male board at Banner Publishing.
The duo first arranges an interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning Know magazine journalist, "lady's man, man's man, and man-about-town," Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor, Moulin Rouge!). Block, assuming a book like Down with Love would only be written by an embittered and ugly spinster, stands the duo up multiple times in lieu of a series of rendezvous with a trio of swinging stewardesses. But when Hiller arranges for Down with Love to be serenaded by Judy Garland on The Ed Sullivan Show, it starts flying off shelves all over the world, and men everywhere are left scratching their heads as their newly assertive wives and girlfriends aspire to be "Down with Love girls."
When Novak identifies Block as the epitome of crass maleness during her appearance on the game show Guess My Game, life quickly becomes miserable for both the suave journalist and his best friend and editor, Peter MacMannus (David Hyde Pierce, Frasier), who was courting Hiller. In order to save his good name and restore the world to its former patriarchal glory, Block reinvents himself as a squeaky-clean Southern astronaut named Major Zip Martin. By making Novak fall in love with Martin, Block will reveal to the world that the author of Down with Love is no Down with Love girl herself, but a fake, thus bringing an end to feminism and setting the world aright once more.
If 2000's Bring It On didn't quite convince you Peyton Reed is a filmmaker worth keeping an eye on, Down with Love should do the trick. Romantic comedies are rarely anything more than the sort of vacuous entertainment one tosses into the DVD player in order to kill 100 or so minutes, then promptly forgets as soon as the end credits are rolling. As cartoonish as it might seem on a first pass, Down with Love is the rare romance that rewards multiple viewings, more and more of its layers of minute detail, sharp wit, and observant eye revealing themselves with each spin of the disc. Homage, parody, social observation, deconstruction of romantic comedies, and honest-to-goodness romance, Down with Love is so richly conceived and constructed its appeal should reach beyond fans of the genre.
The movie exceeds expectations because Reed and screenwriters Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake are aware that those old Doris Day-Rock Hudson flicks were made on the cusp of the sexual revolution, and it dates them terribly. Their witty dialogue, laced with innuendo that was risqué during the staid early '60s, is quaint and tame because of all that happened later in the decade. But Reed and company weave our modern awareness of the sexual revolution into the fabric of Down with Love's shenanigans: much of the joy watching the leads face off against one another is in our knowing where their world is headed in the coming decades, even if they do not. One of the central problems in making a modern romantic comedy (aside from simply finding a fresh approach) is that feminism's demands for female autonomy are bound to conflict with the genre's need for romantic cohesion in the most traditional, monogamous sense by film's end. If pre-feminist bedroom comedies inevitably wrapped things up with the woman coming to her senses and accepting her traditional role in society, the majority of modern romantic comedies aren't much more progressive. They tend to adhere to the same sort of algebra, except with the genders reversed (two romantic comedies I've recently reviewed, Life or Something Like It and Sweet Home Alabama are prime examples). Down with Love solves the conundrum simply enough by casting both its leads as examples of gender autonomy gone awry, then bringing both to a more moderate position. It's a simple approach that allows for two strong leads, neither dominated by the other. But, even in taking this approach, Reed exploits the opportunity to make keen observations about the genre and keep the story compelling. He cleverly convinces us the film will end just as any Day-Hudson farce would, then introduces a plot twist so absurd it only works because we've already accepted the self-aware artifice of the film's entire world, as 21st-century viewers we're eager for it not to end as if it had been made in 1963, and such a sharp narrative turn in a genre known for predictable endings produces an almost giddy exhilaration. It's with this level of intelligence that Reed succeeds in constructing a movie that parodies the romantic comedy while simultaneously exemplifying its hidden potential.
For the film to be anything more than an intellectual deconstruction, it required what all romantic comedies require: chemistry between its leads. The juice between Zellweger and McGregor is surprisingly abundant considering the cartoonish nature of the characters. In the various supplements on the disc, Reed repeatedly observes that, in keeping with the films to which it pays homage, Down with Love is as close as a movie can get to being a musical without the characters actually breaking into song. The observation is fair, the film's cohesive power and comedy relying on rhythmically precise delivery of dense and witty dialogue, and long master shots with elaborately choreographed movement and blocking of actors. That the leads maneuver through the technical aspects of their performances while infusing the characters with charm and giving off genuine romantic sparks says a lot about their quality as actors. In addition, the film is bolstered with fine performances by David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Paulson, the obligatory confidantes to each of the leads. They demonstrate a grasp of the film's technical demands that equals the leads', and their romantic sparring is a supplemental gem: while so many romantic comedies fail to even present a lead couple whose chemistry capably carries the audience along, Down with Love manages two spot-on romances. Pierce, in particular, is a study in ideal casting. It's difficult to image an actor better suited to stepping into the fastidious, neurotic best friend role played with aplomb by Tony Randall in Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, and other sex comedies. Pierce's Niles Crane persona on TV's Frasier is Randall-like anyway, and his years of work on the show have given him impeccable comedic timing. (Randall, by the way, makes a cameo in the film as publishing magnate Theodore Banner.)
Despite all my praise so far, the film might still have fallen on its face if its costume design, production design, and cinematography hadn't achieved the same density as its storytelling and performances. After a '60s-era Fox logo, followed by the old Cinemascope banner, the film opens with a pull-back crane shot of Zellweger exiting Grand Central Station, decked in a pink and white dress with matching bowed hat, among a gaggle of bland and carefully choreographed extras. Everything about it evokes with great precision the films whose style Down with Love borrows: Zellweger's dress isn't what women wore in the '60s, it's what movie starlets wore in the '60s; Grand Central's as clean and artificial as any Hollywood backlot version of New York; even the aesthetics of the crane shot scream a bygone era. In a scant 10 seconds, Reed and crew communicate subliminally the promise of a keenly-observed film. The remaining 101 minutes and 50 seconds live up to that promise, letting us bask in split-screen telephone conversations, rear projection trips in vintage automobiles (actually achieved with blue screen, but perfectly reproducing the old rear projection in-camera effect), groovy swingers' pads, non-threatening beatniks, and hokey leaps in narrative logic. And this DVD is largely successful in reproducing the film's stylized look. Color is key here. Reed and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (Fight Club) used the digital color timing process to reproduce the vivid look of 3-strip Technicolor. The sparkling sets and costumes jump off the screen in this 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer (there's a separate pan 'n' scan edition of the disc, but we'll just pretend there isn't and move on). Flesh tones are hardly natural, but they're not intended to be: 3-strip Technicolor didn't render any color naturally. The image is crisp, and edge enhancement is moderate but it has resulted in some haloing along high-contrast edges.
I can't talk about the DVD's audio without heaping heavy praise on Marc Shaiman's (South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut) score. With its cornball accompaniment of every quirky character gesture and silly gag, its ballsy swing, and its sweeping romanticism, it sounds as though it could have been borrowed wholesale from one of the old comedies Down with Love pokes fun at. Shaiman's work receives deluxe treatment from the disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track. The film is otherwise dialogue-heavy and doesn't make aggressive use of the full soundstage. That's fine. The source, as it was recorded, is presented free of hiss or other defect.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Although the list of extras for this disc is long, they're average at best. Reed provides a decent, mostly screen-specific audio commentary. The six featurettes have a convenient Play All option but, combined, the segments run just under 17 minutes. They're slightly more informative than an electronic press kit, but a far cry from a truly substantive documentary. The 12-minute HBO Special is e.p.k. material, and is mostly redundant as much of the footage was culled from the featurettes.
The five deleted scenes have an optional commentary by Reed, but their total running time is less than four minutes. They're hardly spectacular or enlightening. The blooper reel runs nearly seven minutes, though, and is pretty funny. The brief Hair and Wardrobe Tests segment, which is set to music, is also more entertaining that one would assume.
"Here's to Love" is a music video segment pulled from the end of the film in which McGregor and Zellweger sing and dance. Shot to look like an early-'60s variety show, it's another convincing melding of cinematography, set design, and costume design. In the same category is the Guess My Game segment, Novak's appearance on the faux-What's My Line game show, pulled from the movie and presented in all its full screen, grainy black-and-white glory. The Down with Love Testimonial is a commercial for the book, again pulled directly out of the movie proper.
Down with Love is a surprising success: a smart romantic comedy that offers so much more for those willing to look. Fox's DVD offers the film in a clean transfer with vivid colors, not to mention an acceptable array of extras.
It's recommended that Down with Love serve a minimum of 102 minutes in your home.
This court is in recess.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Peyton Reed
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