When is an old-fashioned 1960's style romantic comedy not an old-fashioned 1960's style romantic comedy? When it's made in 2003 and stars Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor, naturally.
"Down With Love" is a cute, bubbly, at times overzealous, but generally charming homage to those old Doris Day-Rock Hudson films like "Send Me No Flowers," "Pillow Talk," and "Lover Come Back." However, unlike the Austin Powers flicks, which attempt to spoof and ridicule the sixties' style and culture, "Down With Love" offers rather fondly to duplicate them, although with an updated twenty-first century sensibility. In other words, there is no winking at the audience; the humor and playfulness are inherent in the old-fashioned script rather than relying on send-ups of another era. Most of the time the film's affectionate gimmick works. When it doesn't, it's because it's trying too hard. Note, though, that without a knowledge of the old movies it's echoing, a viewer may mistake "Down With Love" as simply a boring house wreck.
The film is set in 1962, and everything about it from the opening credits to the closing theme music evokes the spirit of lightweight sixties' filmmaking. One will not only see the Day-Hudson references throughout but things like Hitchcock's "North By Northwest" (1959, close enough) as well, and "How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." Garish colors, split screens, beehive hairdos, horn-rimmed glasses, they're all here, but, again, not to deride them but to remind us of another place and another time, so recent yet so far away.
The film stars two of the screen's biggest current stars, Renee Zellweger ("Chicago," "Bridget Jones's Diary") and Ewan McGregor ("Star Wars," "Moulin Rouge"). She plays Barbara Novak, a young, single, small-town woman from Maine, who has just written a feminist book called "Down With Love," in which she maintains a woman's right to the same kind of independence a man has, especially in terms of a woman's right to enjoy sex without having to worry about love or marriage. McGregor plays Catcher Block, a young, single, swinging playboy, a star journalist for the hip men's magazine "Know." When Catcher learns about Barbara's book, he decides to expose her as a fraud by making her fall in love with him. He's just conceited enough to think he can get away with it. If she does, he plans to write her up as being just like every other woman in the world and just as susceptible to romance.
More important than the plot, though, are the film's atmospheric touches. Think of it: Teeth so white they sparkle, beatniks talking "cool," smoking as the "in" thing to do, Judy Garland and the Ed Sullivan Show, rear-projection motion while two people are in the backseat of a cab, and a fake balcony skyline of New York; things that were all perfectly acceptable to filmgoers everywhere in the sixties, with the battle of the sexes the focal point of almost every comedy, romantic or not. "Fly Me to the Moon" was sung by Astrud Gilbero as well as Frank Sinatra, as we're reminded here, and "Mad" magazine was on top of the world.
Like the old films it mimics, "Down With Love" plays with sexual double entendres but never, ever shows any hints of actual sex. Beds in the sixties' movies were referred to and sat upon, but they were never slept in by two people together. Nevertheless, in milking its gags from the sixties, the present film does things no older film would have done, like use a split-screen telephone conversation to put the two young people in seemingly indelicate positions that border on the lewd. And what do you mean does Catcher succeed in his quest, and do Barbara and Catcher really fall in love? It's still a movie, after all, no matter how much it's updated to provide twists and turns at the end, to promote women's rights, and to fight sexual discrimination.
Even the names are reminiscent of the sixties: "Catcher in the Rye" was the most popular book of the preceding decade and everyone would have heard of it; Kim Novak was a popular actress of the day. Then, to ensure we get the flavor of the times, the ageless Tony Randall shows up as the head of the publishing company that issues Barbara's book. (For the uninformed, Randall was the co-star in most of the Day-Hudson films.) What's more, TV's David Hyde Pierce ("Frasier") plays a character much like Randall's old movie persona--a nervous, insecure, straight-arrow magazine editor.
"Down With Love" is done in good fun, and if most of the laughs are not of the belly variety, at least the movie keeps a person in high spirits.
The wide, 2.13:1 ratio anamorphic Panavision screen size tries to duplicate the dimensions of CinemaScope, while the colors dazzle in the old Technicolor fashion of the fifties and sixties. Hues are radiant and deep and appropriately flashy, and a high bit rate ensures they are rich and intense and that the screen is free of grain. However, it's hard for colors this brilliant not to smear slightly, so expect some small blurring on occasion. Expect, too, some line flutter on McGregor's checked sport coats and some periodic darkening of facial tones.
The sound reproduction is done up in Dolby Digital 5.1, although in a film of this kind that is almost entirely dialogue driven, it is understandable that the rear channels are used infrequently. Nonetheless, the sound is clear and clean, albeit in a manner reminiscent of the sixties-- bright and lean, too. Some thunder and rain during a storm toward the finish remind us of the 5.1 audio's surround capabilities, though, as does its constant reinforcement of musical ambience. There's even a helicopter flyover to prove your rear speakers are functioning, a treat usually reserved for action movies. Front channel stereo spread is excellent, and voices, thankfully, are not always isolated in the center speaker.
This is one of those discs where the bonus features are plentiful, but they don't amount to much. There is, of course, the mandatory audio commentary with the director, Peyton Reed. Next, there are five deleted scenes with optional director commentary, all in widescreen. Then, there's a twelve-minute HBO Special telling us not much more than we already knew about the film. Following that are a whole slew of very brief production vignettes, called, perhaps humorously, "documentaries." These include "Hair and Wardrobe Tests," "On Location," "Creating the World of Down With Love," "Costumes," "Up With Tony Randall," and "Split Decisions," among others. In addition, there's a seven-minute blooper reel; a "Guess My Game" segment; and a music video done up like an old, live television broadcast, "Here's To Love" performed by Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor. Finally, there are twenty-eight scene selections; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English and Spanish subtitles.
Since virtually everything in "Down With Love" is a take on the sixties, from sixties' clothing, hair styles, furniture, architecture, music, slang, and film, I couldn't help wondering how many young people unfamiliar with that ancient world would miss the whole point of the picture. It's not like everybody has a fondness for old romantic comedies on television, after all. I wonder, too, if that's why the film did not do as well as it might have done at the box office, I mean considering its high-profile stars and all.
In any case, "Down With Love" is a clever piece of business and a risk on the part of its filmmakers, to be sure. Its plot and characters are predictable, but that's part of the fun. My only quibble is that it got somewhat repetitious and redundant by the end, having exceeded its charm value after the first hour. So, it's maybe a little too long for its flimsy material. But folks who were around for the originals of everything the film represents are in for a treat while it lasts. Expect nothing outrageous; but those double entendres are funny.