When Hollywood producers resort to a rehash of a particular genre from the old studio days for popcorn profit, you have to wonder if they are plum out of ideas. In the case of Down With Love, the brash sex comedies of the early 1960s are dug up for romantic comedy fodder, and director Peyton Reed (Bring It On) makes sure to squeeze in all the clichZs that audiences still enjoy. Unfortunately, the joy of the Doris Day and Rock Hudson films is lost, buried in a colorful amalgam of cheeky furniture, itchy terry cloth and artificial studio sets.
Renee Zellweger plays Barbara Novak, a not-so-modern Doris Day figure. Novak is a beautiful blonde with spunk entangled in a battle of the sexes with Ewan McGregor's Catcher Block, a debonair playboy who alternates women at the change of his pressed shirts. Novak arrives in New York City, 1962, with a radical feminist text, Down With Love, encouraging women to abandon subservience, embrace sexual instincts and ignore the love impulse (also known as the marriage institution). Men's magazine columnist Block decides to expose Novak by making her fall in love. Complications ensue -- Block assumes a mild-mannered alternate identity, and his friends Peter (Frasier's David Hyde Pierce) and Vikki (Sarah Paulson) complicate the script. Eventually, the homage to Pillow Talk and assorted other Day-Hudson films fumbles into a farce of depressing proportions.
Reed's pastiche shouldn't have been so joyless. Todd Haynes proved last fall with Far From Heaven that homage need only be the jumping board to examine more salient matters. Love is trapped in the innocuous sex comedy mode, and unfortunately fails to realize any potential for social commentary. Pillow Talk may still be considered fluff, but at least its fluff with a feminist touch, and the performances from Hudson and Day were infinitely more inspiring.
To Reed's credit, the art direction on Down With Love is superb, with every kitschy detail drawing attention to itself, which the film's plot and actors should be doing in accordance. Reed and his production team have done their homework, replicating the furniture, elaborate interior decorating and costume selections for maximum effect. The universe of the film, an aggressive pastel rainbow, requires viewers to avert their eyes slightly whenever Renee sports a hot pink outfit.
Meanwhile, the split-screens, musical dance sequences and rear projection shots all contribute to a formal replication of That Touch of Mink and Please Don't Eat The Daisies. One particular highlight: a split-screen sexual innuendo that tames the recent Austin Powers shadow game for campy effect. Elsewhere, nostalgia for the highly artificial composition of rear projection permeates the screen, and if anything, this film would love to revive this forgotten, pre-digital Hollywood standard.
Unfortunately, the film has little else on its agenda. The tired plot cannot be ignored, even as homage to tired romantic comedy screenplays. The innuendo-heavy dialogue is nicely irreverent, but after 20 minutes, the old jokes simply feel ancient. Screenwriters Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake seem determined to recreate that 60s touch with very little tongue-in-cheekiness. The dialogue is so flat and precise that the actors should be playing the film as camp. Otherwise, the screenplay just fizzles, expecting the audience to appreciate its project at face value without actually entertaining us.
Reed apparently decided on a winking homage, rather than a campy approach to the sexual innuendo. Zellweger and McGregor deliver their lines with a matter-of-fact quality that fails to reveal any knowledge of what they hint at. In a film such as this, the characters are so blatantly sexually frustrated that a bit more passion should be thrown into throw away lines like this Zellweger reference to an endowed telescope, "I've never seen one this big." McGregor plays the film as a second-rate Cary Grant, and his interpretation of the suave player is only slightly more convincing than his ability to generate real emotion (as when he appears to fall in love with Novak). Zellweger is a fine actress, but with all the makeup applied to her distinct face, I couldn't keep her Chicago dummy look out of my head.
David Hyde Pierce, on the other hand, manages to fulfill the bookish, effeminate sidekick, Peter, to satisfying results. Often, the film resorts to farcical situations that rival those on Frasier, and his version of Niles Crane is allowed to play up his homosexual mannerisms to decent effect here -- "Who are you calling a Nancy?" His object of pursuit, Sarah Paulson, rounds out the cast as sexually frustrated Vikki, a Down With Love girl afraid to give into the temptation of marriage to Peter. Paulson manages to outshine even Zellweger, but again, if Reed had allowed his actors to offer campy performances, the entire lot may have improved drastically.
Down With Love fails to arouse any interest due to this crucial impotence. With a screenplay of sexual innuendo and allusions to the battle of the proverbial sexes, you would expect the film to find an animal charge hidden under all the terry cloth and martinis. Instead, the painful truth is that the film's surprising feminist politics, which are nearly incoherent, prevents the lead characters from true reconciliation. The final third plays up the rational to explain the comedy of errors with confessional monologues, but with very little happening elsewhere, the film ends on a hollow note. Unable to recreate the joyful and tongue-in-cheek essence of its subjects, Reed and company have managed to attack them with an expensive, yet poor imitation.