Down With Love

Bathed in the pastel and sherbet artifice of an early 1960s, big studio Technicolor virginal sex comedy, “Down With Love” lovingly recreates a more innocent time when audiences effortlessly bought into the notion that Doris Day was pure as falling snow and Rock Hudson was a real ladies man.

Like Todd Haynes’ under appreciated “Far From Heaven,” his 2002 homage to the 1950s melodramas of director Douglas Sirk, “Down With Love” endeavors to engender the original formula with modern sensibilities, and for most of its breezy ninety minutes, succeeds. Like “Far From Heaven,” “Down With Love” has found a director who not only understands the concept, but respects it.

Director Peyton Reed, who put the sis-boom-bah in “Bring It On,” reproduces the look and feel of the Day-Hudson (and occasionally James Garner) romantic comedies, complete with Edith Head-inspired costumes (created here by Daniel Orlandi), synthetic Manhattan interiors and exteriors, duplicated by production designer Andrew Laws and captured in bright, cheery Cinemascope colors by cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth.

Into this manufactured playground arrives aspiring novelist Barbara Novak (Renee Zellweger), who has come to the big city in search of a publisher for her book “Down With Love,” a pre- Helen Gurley Brown feminist take on equality of the sexes. Novak may look like Doris Day in her fabulous wardrobe (dig those hats) and blonde flip hairdo, but she’s far from being naive. Her book suggests that women treat men with the same love them and leave them discourse, and demand an equal say in all things male.

Novak finds a willing publisher in Vicki Hiller (Sarah Paulson), but Novak’s anti-male mantra has difficulty reaching the masses. Then Ed Sullivan mentions the tome, and it’s flying off the shelf, much to the dismay of the nation’s tripod population, especially playboy, man-about-town columnist Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor), who looks like he just walked off the pages of an Ian Fleming spy novel. Understandably concerned that Novak’s war call will cut into his action, Block decides to expose the budding feminist as a fraud.

Given a green flag by his prudish editor Peter MacMannus (David Hyde Pierce in the Tony Randall-best friend role), Block pretends to be an astronaut from Texas named Zip Martin, and attempts to pull the rug out from under Novak.

The screenplay by Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake mines situations and innuendo from Day-Hudson films like “Lover Come Back” and most notably “Pillow Talk,” and reinvents them to suit modern audiences. The then-shocking split screen effect of Day and Hudson sharing an innocent bath is taken to new heights (and occasionally new lows) with a similar split-screen scene that poses the couple in suggestive situations.

Most of the dialogue is still as bubbly and effervescent as the Day-Hudson comedies, but with more of an edge. Simple, harmless dialogue is misconstrued as something more amorous, including an office exchange about length that, even as innuendo, would never have made it past the censors back in the early 1960s.

Zellweger is sweet and appropriately wholesome as Novak, the perfect personification of a small town girl with big city dreams. Her manifesto aside, Novak seems to be in love with the idea of being in love, and her interaction with the deceitful Zip Martin is the stuff that giddy romantic comedies are made of.

McGregor, with his greased back hair and chiseled jaw, has a lot of fun with the swinging bachelor with a revolving door. McGregor makes it easy for us to believe that Block never met a stewardess he didn’t like, or could bed. Even when he’s scheming against Novak, he does so with a twinkle in his eye that suggests he’s not really a cad.

Even though Doris Day and Rock Hudson were the captains of their respective ships, it wouldn’t be much of a voyage without a trusty crew, and “Down With Love” provides Novak and Block with excellent navigators, the voices of reason who help keep everything in perspective.

David Hyde Pierce, who redefined anal retentive as Niles Crane on “Frasier,” is perfect as Block’s editor, who gives Tony Randall (who appears in a cameo and adds a nostalgic bridge between the original films and this one) a run for his money. Sarah Paulson is equally delightful as Novak’s editor and Peter’s professional rival.

All of this folly unfolds against fake studio skylines and processed city shots that remind us we’re not supposed to take any of this seriously. Director Reed does a remarkable job of walking the thin line between parody and homage, never allowing “Down With Love” to mock his film’s inspiration.

It’s a throwback, a fluffy piece of romantic comedy entertainment that might baffle younger audiences who are clueless when you mention “Pillow Talk,” but will surely tickle the fancy of anyone who appreciated a time when movies opened with a Cinemascope card and concluded with a happy ending.


Nostalgic nod to Day-glow romantic comedies


Renee Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, David Hyde Pierce, Sarah Paulson, Rachel Dratch, Tony Randall. Directed by Peyton Reed. Rated PG-13. 93 Minutes.


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