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"Down with Love": A Cheerful Exercise in Phony Nostalgia

  • Michael Medved Your Cultural Crusader
  • 2003 15 May
"Down with Love":  A Cheerful Exercise in Phony Nostalgia

It’s only natural for a decadent age to produce nostalgic entertainments invoking a world of lost innocence. But what does it say about the current state of our current pop culture when one of the biggest Hollywood studios (Twentieth Century Fox) invests a bundle for a glossy, nostalgic comedy paying tribute to a long ago world of false innocence?

“Down With Love,” the heavily hyped new star vehicle for Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor, is supposed to take us back to the carefree universe of Rock Hudson-Doris Day romantic comedies of the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s, including “Pillow Talk,” “Lover Come Back,” and “Send Me No Flowers.” At the time, these silly but successful films carried a reputation as sophisticated, racy, even naughty -- full of sly references to sex and pursuit, even though the heroines never surrendered their virginity outside of marriage. I specifically remember wanting to see “Pillow Talk” when it came out in 1959, but my late mother wisely vetoed that idea -- insisting that such an “adult” farce would be completely inappropriate for a ten year old. If anything, the intervening years have only diminished the highly polished, Technicolor luster of the Hudson-Day comedies. First, Doris Day went public with the depressing details of her life off-screen -- indicating that Hollywood’s perky and perennial virgin actually went through a long series of irresponsible, abusive and profoundly painful sexual relationships. Then, of course, Rock Hudson died of AIDS, with attendant attention to his long-standing and aggressive homosexuality.

In this context, the Hudson-Day comedies look more like painfully dated cultural curiosities today, rather than the “classics of a golden age” – as heralded in the promotional materials for “Down With Love.” In fact, one of the most surprising aspects of this new project is that savvy producers (including the creators of the Oscar-winning “American Beauty”) decided to make it at all. The other shock is that the fluffy, ridiculous result, despite decidedly questionable casting, proves oddly enjoyable in its amiable and unapologetic artificiality.

Renée Zellweger plays an implausibly fashionable country girl from Maine who’s come to New York City in 1962 for the publication of her first book, “Down With Love.” That literary endeavor, complete with a provocative pink pastel cover, urges women to concentrate on careers rather than marriage, and to follow the male example of indulging in casual sex without commitment. The stuffy, all-male executives at the publishing house (complete with horned-rim glasses, pensive pipes and narrow ties) don’t understand the appeal of the book, but Zellweger’s spunky editor (Sarah Paulson) fights to place the controversial title on the bestseller list.

Suddenly, “Down With Love” girls turn up everywhere, declaring their independence of domineering males, so that the sexist establishment must counterattack. Leading that effort to restore order and traditionalism is the famous investigative reporter, Catcher Block (Ewan Macgregor), a dashing James Bond type (complete with tuxedos and British accent) who will go to elaborate lengths to force the best-selling author to violate her own principles by falling  in love with him. To accomplish this purpose, he impersonates an astronaut, and puts on a Texas accent that makes him sound eerily like Matthew McConaughey. Meanwhile, the star journalist’s magazine publisher, David Hyde Pierce, nurses a desperate crush on Zellweger’s editor, but can’t betray the secret agenda of his most important reporter.

The plot offers a series of laughable twists and turns, including Zellweger’s involvement in a jaw-dropping masquerade of her own. She gets to wear a truly dazzling array of pastel colored early ‘60’s fashions, as well as undergoing an onscreen bubble-bath, displaying various items of lingerie and a two piece sun bathing outfit, and dancing in her nightgown in romantic rapture in front of a picturesque set showing the New York skyline under a full moon. She manages to convey some of Doris Day’s girl-next-door appeal, but little of the earlier star’s undeniable sheen and sexiness. (Zellweger, in fact, looks so shockingly plain and puffy in many scenes that it raises questions about whether she’s inexplicably been purposefully deglamorized, as she was so effectively in “Bridget Jones’ Diary”)

McGregor, meanwhile, goes through his part with almost mechanical competence, moving gracefully through the snazzy, shiny, seductively elaborate period sets, and delivering his foolish lines with crisp, careful conviction. He looks so skinny and runtish (especially in the several scenes in which he’s just stepping out of the shower), however, that it’s hard to accept him in the macho role he’s supposed to play, and he generates no visible chemistry with his co-star.

In a spoof of this nature, that hardly matters; the characters are far less entertaining than all the knowing period references, to Ed Sullivan’s TV show, and “How to Succeed in Business” on Broadway, and Mickey Mantle at Yankee stadium and Judy Garland and JFK’s “Profiles in Courage” (displaced atop the bestseller lists by “Down With Love,” naturally. There’s even a satisfying cameo by the 82-year-old Tony Randall, who played the David Hyde Pierce role in all the original Hudson-Day comedies some forty years ago.

In other words, there’s enough going on in the busy, glowing, Technicolor-stylized surfaces to help you forget about your troubles for nearly two hours, and to ignore the movie’s obvious shortcomings. The producers clearly hope to appeal to a youthful audience by recreating an elegant era that those viewers are much too young to remember -- though they will probably understand that that glitzy world of supper clubs and doormen and penthouse apartments that the film deploys never existed anywhere except in Hollywood movies.

The PG-13 rating comes from an abundance of smutty double-entendre that goes far beyond anything in sex comedies of the ‘60’s, and resemblances the humor of “Austin Powers” far more than that of Doris Day and Rock Hudson. There are also references to homosexuality (the erstwhile girlfriend of David Hyde Pierce speculates aloud about his orientation) that never would have appeared in the earlier films. The movie, despite its relatively wholesome ad campaign, is inappropriate for most kids of twelve or younger (my mother was right about such material).

In an overly generous and cheerful mood (this is, after all, a relentlessly cheery movie, with its cherry reds and bubblegum pinks and intense turquoise color schemes), “Down With Love” rises to THREE STARS -- for originality and audacity in reviving old movies that until now have been largely (and perhaps appropriately) forgotten. 

Michael Medved hosts a nationally syndicated daily radio show focusing on the intersection of politics and pop culture.  He's the author of eight non-fiction books, for twelve years the co-host of "Sneak Previews" on PBS, and former Chief Film Critic for the New York Post.