Written by movies  |  11. May 2003

by Ben Kenigsberg Perhaps we're witnessing the creation of a new genre. First Todd Haynes revisited Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1956) in Far From Heaven, and now another Universal International, Ross Hunter-produced product, the Doris Day-Rock Hudson picture Pillow Talk (1959), gets a loose updating in the form of Down With Love. Making a film in an outmoded style is basically an impossible venture. There's something distinctly off about seeing contemporary movie stars walking about the kind of excessive, designed-for-Technicolor sets used in the '50s and early '60s. Films that attempt to re-create the Hollywood past are doomed to play with a certain degree of irony; you can't watch them without being distracted by the gaudiness of the costumes and the artifice of the dialogue. Far From Heaven, one of last year's best films, gets around that problem with a little revisionism: it depicts lifestyles and behaviors that would never have passed under the Production Code while Sirk was making films, as Sirk would have depicted them. Down With Love also does its share of updating, but on the whole it's a less meticulous, less intellectual concoction than Far From Heaven. It's also a lot more fun, and it even lends the Day-Hudson pictures a kind of retroactive sophistication. Those movies may not be p.c., it says, but they're still entertaining. Down With Love does a remarkable job of balancing parody, satire, and straight-up romantic comedy. After a few minutes of thinking that the movie was trying too hard (although using the old "a CinemaScope picture" title card was an inspired touch), I found myself completely absorbed in the intentionally insipid story. Down With Love is technically dazzling, but it never allows its rampant stylistic flourishes -- retro dcor, split-screen cinematography -- to become distancing. Rene Zellweger stars as Barbara Novak, a 1962 single woman from Maine who's written a book called Down With Love. Her thesis: In order for women to have successful careers, they need to abandon the distraction of falling in love. As a favor to Barbara's editor (Sarah Paulson), men's-magazine publisher Peter McMannus (David Hyde Pierce, looking remarkably like Day-Hudson co-star Tony Randall, who has a cameo) assigns a cover story on Barbara to star journalist Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor). Catcher is a cross between Hudson's chauvinist character in Pillow Talk and James Bond, and, predictably, he blows off his interviews with Barbara -- there are just too many attractive stewardesses in need of his services. Then the book becomes an international success, and Barbara exposes Catcher as a womanizer on national TV. As revenge, Catcher (like Hudson in Pillow Talk) disguises himself as a wealthy Texan, vowing to get Barbara to abandon her principles and fall in love. It's a witty premise, largely because it reverses gender stereotypes: since Barbara has discouraged their wives and girlfriends from doting on them, no man in the world will sleep with her. Barbara becomes sex-starved and pursues Catcher the way that Catcher usually pursues women. Catcher, meanwhile, holds out on her. Down With Love may be the first 1962 comedy, faux or real, in which the woman is depicted as sexual aggressor. The problem with the story is that the logical conclusion -- undoubtedly the ending that would have been used four decades ago -- is for Barbara to fall in love. But Down With Love is too smart to step into that misogynistic trap. The movie turns mod in its last act, and it does so in a way that doesn't feel smug -- the film never condescends to the romantic spirit that fuels its source material. Down With Love is sometimes a bit too self-aware. Concluding a montage of women reading Barbara's book with shots of translated copies being smuggled into Communist Russia and China was ill-advised -- it points out all too clearly that old Hollywood would never have seen Russia and China as anything but enemies. And the homage to Abbott and Costello's "who's on first?" routine is insufficiently hip. It's too obvious a reference point. But more often than not, Down With Love is casually clever about bridging three decades (the '50s, the '60s, and the '00s). Beatniks, never much of a presence in late-'50s Hollywood, burst on the scene in a party sequence vaguely reminiscent of Blowup (1966). When Catch hires a private eye to find dirt on Barbara, the detective obliges: "That broad's book is bad for business. Husbands don't want their wives tailed anymore. They know if they're sneaking out now, they're just looking for a job." There's also a very funny sequence in which Catcher and Barbara prepare for a date. "Fly Me to the Moon" plays on the soundtrack over both, but he dresses to Sinatra's rendition and she dresses to a version that sounds like it was scored by Burt Bacharach. That Down With Love could be so intelligent comes as something of a surprise -- its director is Peyton Reed, whose only other film is the cheerleader flick Bring It On (2000). Yet in its way, Down With Love is an even slyer, more subversive nostalgia trip than Gary Ross's wonderful Pleasantville (1998). At once totally cynical towards and totally enamored of the past, it's an ingeniously constructed charmer. It's down with movies.

Copyright © 1996-2022 LongIsland.com & Long Island Media, Inc. All rights reserved.