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Down with Love

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
Down with Love

from Film Forum, 05/22/03

Wrapped up in a retro-makeover and Technicolor costumes, Renee Zellweger follows up her acclaimed Chicago performance with a witty, endearing turn in director Peyton Reed's over-decorated trifle Down with Love. Sending up the popular '60s sex comedies of Rock Hudson and Doris Day (Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back), the film sets up a formulaic battle of the sexes. But its plot is clearly secondary; the filmmakers are much more interested in giddily exaggerating and celebrating genre conventions.

The movie follows the rising fame of Barbara Novack (Zellweger), the outspoken author of a book titled Down with Love. Novack's book is an aggressive exhortation for women to behave like foolish men, teaching them to win power and influence by pursuing sex for merely carnal purposes, as many Manhattan playboys do. The book becomes a bestseller. Women embrace it, enraging their neglectful husbands and lovers by becoming promiscuous and self-centered. Men, choking on a taste of their own medicine, get mad. A hero will rise, and the champion of this disgruntled male population turns out to be a ruthless investigative reporter named Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor). Armed with a playboy's caddish charm, fortune, and good looks, Block sets out to prove Novack is a fraud.

The resulting caper is as light, cheap, and ultimately as insubstantial as cotton candy. It has no further ambitions than to clown around with romantic comedy conventions. And yet, it inadvertently strikes some resonant chords.

Some viewers may object to the film because they, like the men in the film, are offended by promiscuous characters. But the film seems to acknowledge that Novack's ideas are flawed, even if they are popular. The character who wins the greatest support from the audience is Block's best friend, Peter McMannus (David Hyde Pierce), an insecure buffoon smitten with Vikki, Novack's literary agent (Sarah Paulson). To his credit, McMannus finds the complexities of modern romantic maneuvering completely beyond his grasp. He utterly fails to dress up his simple adoration in a disguise of lies and egocentrism.

The film deserves applause for other reasons as well. It has been a while since a comedy has delivered such a heavy dose of old-fashioned wordplay. And the actors relish the opportunity to sink their teeth into such comical banter. The actors (McGregor especially) do better work than the film deserves. The combination of their whole-hearted performances and the enthusiastic work of the set designers and costumers help the film's virtues match its weaknesses.

Despite its stumbles into inappropriate humor, the story's morals remain true. Sex divorced from its appropriate context is empty and leads to no end of trouble. Honesty is always the best policy. And the best relationships are those in which each partner is faithful, honors his or her beloved with respect and honesty, and refrains from self-centeredness. Some interpret the film as a parable of radical feminism. But it seems to me the film shows the flaws of anyone who will stoop to cheapening their behavior in the name of equality. Instead, the irresponsible fool is provoked to realize that his charade of virtue is actually pointing him in the right direction.

Still, before you buy a ticket, please consider whether you want to expose yourself to the film's unfortunate reliance on double entendre and sex-oriented sight gags. Comedies that deal with concealed identities and even more cleverly concealed agendas at their best echo Shakespeare. At their worst they recall Saturday Night Live. This one relies far too heavily on the latter.

Other religious press critics debate the ups and downs of the movie.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says McGregor and Zellweger "give a pair of breezy performances that are fun to watch. The sexual innuendoes may be a bit more overt, but Down With Love still has the look and style of a film that easily could have been made forty years ago. At the same time, the film keeps its tongue firmly planted in its cheek."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) is displeased. "While there's still much to be said about the misogynistic treatment of women common in a male-dominated society, the film endorses a fatuous philosophy of liberation, dressed up in modish catch phrases and vintage couture and passed off as harmless humor. The message viewers are left with falls far short of love conquers all."

Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) cautions families to keep their kids away from the film's abundant innuendoes.

Lisa A. Rice (Movieguide) says it "has a few strong points, including good casting, great music and art direction, and incredible scenery. The biggest problem, however, is found in the movie's feminist worldview. Though portrayed with silliness and humor, the movie assumes that women find love and marriage repressive and confining and that they're all looking for satisfaction in work. Though several viewpoints are batted around, the movie ends with a dissatisfying, slightly confusing combination of traditional and feminist worldviews."

Mainstream critics are divided over whether the film has enough substance to make it worthwhile. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) concludes, "Down With Love is no better or worse than the movies that inspired it, but that is a compliment, I think. It recalls a time when society had more rigid rules for the genders, and thus more adventure in transcending them. And it relishes the big scene where a hypocrite gets his comeuppance. The very concept of comeuppance is obsolete in these permissive modern times, when few movie characters have a sense of shame and behavior is justified in terms of pure selfishness." Michael Medved (Crosswalk) says, "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."