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Monday, June 22, 2015

Summer Not-Busters: Down with Love (2003)

Director: Peyton Reed
Starring: Renee Zellweger, Ewan McGregor
Domestic Gross: $20,305,251

The Hollywood movie machine is often (and not unfairly) criticized for its lack of originality, but the failure of films like Down with Love is the reason why the decision makers never want to try anything new or different. A romantic comedy that eschews contemporary romantic comedy conventions in order to lovingly send up the conventions of an earlier era, Down with Love was (and remains) an outlier in the genre output over the last decade and change, and when it hit theaters it was hit with stony silence. It's a shame since the film is one of uncommon delight and a liveliness that is missing from so many modern romantic comedies. Maybe if it had been released a few years later, after TV audiences fell for Mad Men, a film set in the 1960s, and adopting the style of a certain type of '60s film, would have been an easier sell; but sadly for Down with Love it was a movie out of time in more ways than one - and sadly for audiences relatively few have gotten to experience this wonderful movie.

Set in 1962, Down with Love is a battle of the sexes story set against the burgeoning second wave feminist movement. The respective armies are represented by Barbara Novak (Renee Zellweger), a "new" woman who espouses a philosophy of casual sex, non-commitment, and female empowerment, and Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor), a "ladies' man, man's man, and man about town" who enjoys all the privileges afforded to men in a strict, patriarchal society, while also enjoying the sexual privileges afforded by the new kind of women who make themselves sexually available. While Catcher is already the toast of New York, a celebrated writer for "Know" magazine, owned by Catcher's friend, Peter MacMannus (David Hyde Pierce), Barbara has just arrived in town in anticipation of the release of her book, "Down with Love," which has been edited by Vikki (Sarah Paulson), who is the book's sole support at the male-dominated Banner House. In an effort to get some publicity for the book, Vikki makes a deal with Peter to have Catcher interview Barbara, but Catcher balks at doing a puff piece and keeps making excuses to bail every time he and Barbara are supposed to meet. When "Down with Love" becomes a huge success regardless, Catcher has egg on his face but decides that he'll be ahead of the next big story, which will be the revelation that Barbara is a fraud who can't practice what she preaches. Posing as another man, Catcher begins a romance with Barbara with the intention of forcing her to admit that she does need love and marriage, thereby undermining the new philosophy sweeping the globe and reconfirming the male of the species as the one in the power position.

Modeled largely after the trio of films that paired Rock Hudson and Doris Day - namely, Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, and Send Me No Flowers - Down with Love works hard to capture the spirit of that earlier era while giving it a cheeky spin. The Hudson/Day movies were "sex comedies," but they didn't rely on raunch or on anything explicit; they kept things moving on the strength of innuendo and the comedy of suggestion, a strategy which Down with Love adopts and exaggerates to great effect in its dialogue and technical aspects. There's a sequence during which Barbara and Catcher talk on the phone, each occupying one side of the split screen, that plays out like a filthy ballet, moving them into various sexually suggestive positions with their dialogue acting to bolster the suggestion. It is at once incredibly juvenile and yet at the same time has a certain degree of sophistication because of how completely Zellweger and McGregor invest in their performances (which are "mannered" as they work to evoke a certain acting style that's no longer in vogue, but which work here because they fit perfectly with the tone of the film) and how assuredly director Peyton Reed puts them through their paces. To watch Down with Love, you would think that Reed had been making films in this style for some time, he's so comfortable with it, but in fact it was only his second feature following the very different (and much more successful) Bring It On.

Down with Love successfully plays within the style of the films that it's evoking, but it also manages to have fun outside of that style by finding ways wink at the audience from a contemporary point-of-view. It's in the little things, like the way that Vikki is always emerging from a billowing cloud of smoke, and in the fun that the film, and the actors, have with the costuming, including the way that Barbara and Vikki always take a moment to pose when they enter a room and, in one scene, remove their coats in unison to reveal that each is wearing a dress in the same pattern as the other's coat. It's also in the bigger things, like the film's explicit acknowledgment of the sexism that surrounds the female characters, who even when they're chairing a meeting are implicitly dismissed by their male co-workers, who ask them to make and serve coffee as if it's only natural that they would instead of anyone else in the room, and who are treated as window dressing for the pleasure of the male gaze, their interests as adorable diversions, and their occupations are nothing more than the things they'll do until they land a husband and get married. Down with Love ends with love and marriage (as the genre demands), but that doesn't mean that the film cottons to the idea that a woman's only value comes from her ability to get and keep a man, or that happiness is only possible for a woman if she finds security in marriage. For one thing, the couplings/marriages that come at the end are characterized as being as wanted and needed by the male halves as the female halves (and the third act features a reversal which finds Catcher playing the role of the stereotypical despondent, lovelorn single woman). For another, the film depicts the male chauvinism throughout for the ridiculous posturing that it is, and the men who spout it as whiny babies whenever the women around them succeed in asserting some sense of agency. The story may feature a battle of the sexes, but from Down with Love's point of view that battle has already been won, and it comes out in favor of the women.

Down with Love is a brilliant little piece of pastiche with a fun, joyful spirit and near-flawless execution. As the dueling leads, Zellweger and McGregor each deliver winning performances, with Zellweger in particular hitting all the right notes and managing to guide her character through the third act which finds her pulling the rug out from under McGregor and unloading a novel's worth of dialogue to him which unpacks the narrative's story before the story without making it seem like nothing more than an exposition dump or a narrative deus ex machina that conveniently removes Barbara from the potentially career-ending trap that Catcher has set for her. However, as wonderful and as game as both Zellweger and McGregor are, it's the supporting best friends played by Paulson and Pierce who end up running away with Down with Love. Playing the "Tony Randall" role (Randall himself appears in a cameo), Pierce is pitch perfect as the fussy anti-ladies' man to McGregor's debonair lady killer, while Paulson's performance as Zellweger's dry and pragmatic friend provides the perfect calming balance to Pierce's more manic energy. In every respect, Down with Love is an utterly charming and entertaining movie, it's only crime being that it emulates a style of filmmaking that is, perhaps, not as fondly remembered now as it ought to be.

Should It Have Been a Blockbuster?: In a more perfect world than this one, yes.


Anonymous said...

I'm so with you on this! I really loved this movie. It's smart and sassy and clever and just a lot of fun. It's a shame that no one talks about it.

Norma Desmond said...

I know! At the very least this should be a cult favorite.

Big Screen Small Words said...

I recently re-watched this and it was still so much fun. I liked the chemistry between the characters.