The cinematic nostalgia boom continues with this romantic comedy, a takeoff on Ross Hunter’s “Pillow Talk”-“That Touch of Mink”-style sixties flicks that, with its ridiculously pastel palette and ostentatiously phony sets, is even more visually flamboyant than “Far from Heaven.” But unlike Todd Haynes’ masterpiece, which went way beyond mere imitation to become a moving and powerful film in its own right, “Down With Love” is just an exaggerated copy of its models–enjoyable enough as a lark and lovely to look at, but totally synthetic and artificial. It’s the movie equivalent of cotton candy–sweet and colorful, but with negligible nutritional value for the brain.
Renee Zellweger plays the Doris Day character, a briskly efficient writer from Maine named Barbara Novak who arrives in New York City for the publication of her debut book–the eponymous “self-improvement” tome that encourages women to dismiss the dream of romance, which leads them into subservience and second-class status, and instead enjoy sex without commitment while furthering their careers unattached. Her male nemesis is Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor), a ladies’ man writer for an Esquire-style magazine who determines to destroy her by making her fall for him–a scheme that involves his pretending to be a naive astronaut unaware of her fame. (Block is the Rock Hudson role, but he actually plays it more like the Cary Grant of “That Touch of Mink,” with a touch of Frank Sinatra swagger thrown in for good measure.) In the Tony Randall part of Catcher’s best friend–here Peter McMannus, the magazine’s owner–is David Hyde Pierce, who’s given a romantic interest of his own in the person of Vikki Hiller (Sarah Paulson), Barbara’s editor, whose climb up the corporate ladder is blockaded by her gender. As a last nod to the pictures it’s celebrating, “Love” casts Randall himself as Hiller’s boss, who ultimately finds that the book he’s published is a danger to his own blissful existence.
There isn’t anything of consequence happening in “Down With Love,” which has nothing more profound to say about female empowerment than “Pillow Talk” did back in 1959. But its gloriously heightened style and luscious production design make it delightfully dumb fun. Director Peyton Reed, whose cheesily cartoonish cheerleader movie “Bring It On” demonstrated unusual visual verve for a teen flick, clearly relishes mimicking the stereotypical devices of the Hunter pictures and bringing them up a notch for the new century (the most obvious example is a virtuoso split-screen sequence with a sexual kick); but he maintains a lightly affectionate tone that keeps things airborne when they could easily have crashed and burned–especially toward the close, when a turn of the plot moves into oversized battle-of-the-sexes territory. The cast certainly helps. Though neither Zellweger nor McGregor seems a natural choice for their parts, they carry them off with aplomb, winking knowingly at the audience without getting heavy-handed about it; and at the end the script throws a curve when Barbara pours out an elaborate explanation of her actions in a long, hilarious monologue that Zellweger delivers in an uninterrupted take so perfectly gauged that you’ll feel like cheering when she’s finished. Pierce almost steals the show–as Randall often did–with his prissy, hyper persona, and Paulson proves a fine foil for him. It’s always good to see Randall again, and Jeri Ryan has a few nice moments as a statuesque stewardess, too. But as fine as the performers are, the real stars here are the people behind the camera responsible for the movie’s gorgeous appearance: art director Martin Whist, production designer Andrew Laws, costumer Daniel Orlandi and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth. It’s style over substance, but it’s great style.
“Down With Love” will certainly make you smile, but it’s totally ephemeral, like a trick whose magic dissipates as soon as it’s over: five minutes after you’ve seen the picture, you’ll have forgotten all about it. While you’re watching it, though, you’ll have a good time.