When best-selling feminist author Barbara Novak (Zellweger) becomes the target of dashing playboy Catcher Block (McGregor) the sparks they generate will fly you to the moon and back!
Down With Love is a tantalizing battle of the sexes that is “pure entertainment!”
Down With Love 8.0
eyelights: the punchy dialogues. the zesty performances. the picture’s campiness. its brilliant homage to the Doris Day/Rock Hudson/Tony Randall pictures.
eyesores: the incongruous-looking leads.
“At one point, I had even convinced myself that life was all one big zany sex comedy and you had switched keys with the lead to use his swinging pad to snare me.”
2003’s ‘Down With Love’ is a vastly under-rated screwball comedy inspired by and spoofing the Doris Day/Rock Hudson/Tony Randall film ‘Pillow Talk‘ (and, to a lesser extent, ‘Lover Come Back‘). Directed by Peyton Reed (of ‘Bring It On’ fame) and starring Renée Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Paulson, it takes an age-old battle of the sexes and spins it on its head.
It follows the story of Barbara Novak (Zellweger), a first-time author who is trying to promote her feminist romantic guide. With the help of her editor and friend, Vikki Hiller (Paulson), she attempts to land a meeting with Catcher Block (McGregor), the extremely popular writer of Know Magazine. Since she can’t get assistance from her publisher, she hopes to gain exposure from this outside source.
A ladies’ man, Catcher is absolutely not interested in meeting with Barbara, despite the pleas of his best friend and boss, Peter MacMannus (Pierce), who is trying to get on Vikki’s good side. Offended with being rebuffed a few times, Barbara and Vikki decide to go their own way. But when Barbara’s book becomes a hit and Catcher’s love life begins to suffer for it, he sets about to get his revenge on her.
…by pretending to be exactly the type of man she would fall for: a polite, considerate, sensitive, romantic and successful man. His intention: to prove to the world that Barbara is a hypocrite – that, despite all the advice she offers in her book, she’s just like all other women. But there’s a catch: Catcher starts to fall for Barbara. And now he’s caught in a web of lies that he may never get out of.
I can’t quite remember what compelled me to watch this picture, which evokes all manner of girly romantic tripe, but I was fortunate enough to have seen ‘Pillow Talk’ by the time I finally got my hands on it. Thus aware of ‘Down With Love’s many references, I was able to appreciate the humour a whole lot more – otherwise I likely would have found the picture amusing, but precious and a bit odd.
From the start, the picture establishes that it means to be droll with a tongue-in-cheek narration that situates the audience: “The place: New York City. The Time: Now, 1962”. To further cement the notion that this is set in the sixties, the picture is adorned with opening credits featuring a modern Retro vibe (courtesy of its animation style and jazzy song). One already feels lifted back in time.
Thanks to the magic of the production/set design and costuming (which were nominated for a number of awards, despite the significant number of anachronisms in the picture), we can pretty much believe that our story takes place in 1962 – or, at least, Hollywood’s version of 1962. I can only imagine how much of blast the people involved must have had putting this picture together.
In satirizing the epoch, ‘Down With Love’ plays up the sexual politics of the time, cuts down homophobia, trounces misogyny, takes a poke at cultural stereotypes, and ironically sends up a variety of mainstays of the sixties, such as the Cold War, smoking, beatniks and even stay-put socks. Very little of it is done with any sort of subtlety; clearly, the filmmakers were going for camp. Light camp.
This even extends to the performances themselves. The cast is obviously relishing every moment, sending up their predecessors, Day, Hudson and Randall. They are also having fun taking a bite out of the era’s exaggerated brand of acting, over-articulating and over-expressing slightly much of the time. Amazingly, they are all quite excellent at it, rendering pitch-perfect comic performances.
“The men who resent my success won’t give me the time of day, and the men who respect my success won’t give me the time of night.”
- Barbara Novak is a multi-faceted person. She’s a woman on a mission: to let women know that they are slaves to their romantic ideals, that they need to become complete, independent individuals. But she yearns for love anyway, and this flies in the face of all her ambitions. And vice-versa: now that she’s changed the world (in two weeks, it must be noted!), she is persona non-grata with men.
Renée Zellweger has always irked me some. She’s cutesy, but she has this perpetually pained expression on her face. Her pouty lips annoy me too. But she does such a terrific send up of Doris Day in those movies that I can’t not like her here; the performance is perfect, even if the performer isn’t. And don’t get me started on her muscular calves, something you’d never see in 1962.
“I’m taking her to my place which she still thinks is your place by saying the guy she thinks I am who acts like you has a meeting there with you and the guy who she still doesn’t know I really am.”
- Catcher Block is a debonair, egotist womanizer. He’s flashy, stylish and has a winning smile. No wonder so many women fall for him. No wonder he takes them for granted and doesn’t get attached to any of them – no one challenges him. But he meets his match in Barbara, and in pretending to woo her, he finds that he’s no longer going through the motions. He’s a changed man, with new dreams.
Unlike Zellweger, I’m a fan of Ewan McGregor – have been since I first saw him in ‘Shallow Grave’. He’s a terrific actor, and was one of the Star Wars prequels’ only saving grace. He sinks his teeth all the way into his version of Rock Hudson’s persona; he’s great as Catcher. Except that he doesn’t have the matching physique. He’s eight inches too short, for one. And not all-American.
“I think Vickie was only talking about marriage so I’d wanna have sex with her. And then I did, and now she never talks to me, except to come back for more. And I always give in. I feel so used.”
- Peter MacMannus is a total neurotic. He’s inherited his fortune and persistently feels inadequate. In particular, he wishes to be more successful with the ladies. But he’s got a wimpy, weasely allure that just doesn’t draw them in. And he finds himself incapable of standing up for himself – especially when it comes to Catcher. It’s a wonder that he hasn’t sunk his company into the red.
David Hyde Pierce is absolutely brilliant in the part: He clearly studied Tony Randall’s character in the original films and emulates him perfectly – so perfectly, in fact, that I keep forgetting it’s NOT Randall. He’s vibrant, energetic, dynamic. He even has Randall’s force and tone. I even mix up scenes from Randall’s pictures with ‘Down With Love’ because Pierce so completely embodied that part.
It’s a genius performance. How he didn’t get nominated and win awards for this is beyond me.
“So you’re a homosexual hopelessly in love with Catcher Block, that’s no reason the two of us can’t be married.”
- Vikki is a career woman who militantly supports Barbara’s “down with love” philosophy. However, beneath the surface, she just wants to get married, have some kids and have a nice life. She just doesn’t have much luck in the romance department, is all. And she can’t seem to get rid of Peter, who fawns over her like schoolboy. But, who knows, maybe she will find something in him after all…
Sarah Paulson brings effortless beauty and glamour to the part – something that doesn’t at all happen with Zellweger, who clearly is putting on airs. She is quite good in the part, but she never steals a scene from any of the others (which is wholly appropriate in this context, given that our trio is the key dynamic). But the picture wouldn’t be the same without her able support.
I was an instant fan of ‘Down With Love’ the moment that I saw it, and it remains a favourite of mine to this day. It does double-duty as a spoof and an homage, which I truly adore, I laugh heartily from start to finish, the performances are phenomenal and it has some subtle messages to convey on top of that. It’s got more to offer than even the more earnestly romantic films.
Granted, it’s contrived as heck (it follows a formula, after all…), to the degree that the ending is hilariously absurd, but cleverly convoluted, and the third act is a departure from the conventions of the Day/Hudson/Randall films – but it remains in keeping with the whole romantic comedy genre and it’s ultimately satisfying. ‘Down With Love’ is a heck of a lot of fun.
It’s smart, it’s self-aware, it’s satirical, it’s side-splitting. How can one not be down with it?
Date of viewing: December 20, 2014