In “Down With Love,” which is both an homage to and a satire of the Hudson/Day films, that subgenre is simultaneously resurrected and transformed, offering latter-day filmgoers of all generations a chance to immerse themselves in nearly two hours of unapologetic, mischievous, hopelessly naughty fun.
This breakthrough effort for sophomore director Peyton Reed (“Bring it On”) and debut screenwriters Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake relies mostly on “Pillow Talk” and “Lover Come Back” to construct its premise. It's 1962 and Barbara Novak (Renée Zellweger) has just authored a book entitled “Down With Love,” a daring declaration of sexual liberation that calls for women everywhere to do like men and separate their feelings of love from their desire for sex. To help promote the book her editor Vikki (Sarah Paulson) has arranged for a cover story in the men's magazine “Know,” whose owner and publisher Peter McMannus (David Hyde Pierce) just happens to have a thing for Vikki. The downside is that the piece is to be written by the magazine's star writer, the notorious playboy Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor). But Catcher is none too fond of the idea, repeatedly finding ways to politely weasel out of the interview. Not that it makes any difference--the book becomes a smash and Barbara takes her revenge with some very public shots at Catcher. Catcher, of course, doesn't go down easily--if it takes every ounce of his cntinental charisma, he intends to trap and expose Ms. Novak for what he's convinced she is: just another hopelessly romantic, all-American female.
As sure-fire as this kind of confection might seem to be, there's a delicate balancing act at work. Preserving the charm of the premise depends, in large part, on acknowledging the more dated aspects of the approach. Played too straight, the film would seem trite; too satirical and the picture would verge on camp. To his credit, Reed walks his tightrope with expert precision.
Most of the film, in fact, is played fairly straight, deviating from the Hudson/Day paradigm with only a few well-chosen detours into surrealism and an assortment of hilarious sexual innuendos and double-entendres that go far beyond what was allowable in the early '60s. At no point, though, does anything in “Down With Love” feel inorganic, thanks to a unified sense of style that actually owes more to the colorful, fashion-fixated palette of films like 1957's “Funny Face” than anything from the '60s. And yet the look and the style is pure '60s, with every frame gloriously loaded with candy-colored kitsch and space age chic.
All of this would be in vain if McGregor and Zellweger were not up to the challenge of stepping into the shoes of their famous forbears, for “Down With Love” ultimately rises or falls on the charisma, sex appeal and chemistry of its stars. Fortunately, as with everything else in the movie, the casting is a resounding triumph. Rather than seek out actors who would emulate the precise types originated by Hudson and Day, Reed found actors who would forge a unique chemistry of their own, plugging effortlessly into a world forged from another period, another social consciousness. It is clearly no coincidence that both McGregor and Zellweger segued to “Down With Love” from acclaimed turns in the two films credited with reviving the modern-day musical: “Moulin Rouge” and “Chicago.” Though “Down With Love” is clearly no musical, it requires its actors to sell viewers on a similar suspension of disbelief, a task which Zellweger and McGregor once again fulfill in spectacular fashion.
With luck, good marketing and positive word of mouth, Fox will beat the summer odds and find the film the loyal audience it so richly deserves. It's one of 2003's most refreshing surprises. Starring Renée Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, David Hyde Pierce, Sarah Paulson and Tony Randall. Directed by Peyton Reed. Written by Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake. Produced by Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks. A Fox release. Romantic comedy. Rated PG-13 for sexual humor and dialogue. Running time: 109 min