THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Hollywood must be getting nostalgic for itself. Last year, Todd Haynes recreated the look and feel of period Douglas Sirk movies in Far From Heaven, and this year Rob Zombie recaptured the experience of grindhouse slasher movies with House of 1000 Corpses. Now, director Payton Reed (Bring It On) recreates the tone of those old Rock Hudson/Doris Day movies (specifically Pillow Talk) in Down With Love. A trip to the cinema could leave audience members confused about what decade it is.

Renee Zellweger takes the Doris Day role, starring as Barbara Novak, a Small Town Girl who arrives in the Big City of Manhattan to promote her first book, which shares its title with the movie. The book is a how-to manual for women, explaining how they can find happiness by replacing the need for love with chocolate. The tome also suggests acting like a man sexually (i.e. sleeping with whomever they want and not feeling guilty about the lack of any post-coital attachments).

Barbara’s editor Vikki Hiller (Sarah Paulson) is the only prominent female in the publishing company, so she feels a strong desire to make the book a success. She arranges for Barbara to be interviewed by Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor), a writer for popular Know Magazine who is as renowned for being a “ladies’ man, man’s man, man-about-town” as he is for his writing ability. Catcher is more interested in chasing skirts than in interviewing an author, so he repeatedly blows Barbara off. This is much to the chagrin of his editor Peter McMannus (David Hyde Pierce), who thinks he can make romantic inroads with Vikki by helping her client.

Barbara gets mad at being blown off, so as soon as her book becomes a nationwide best-seller, she trashes Catcher during a TV interview. Furthermore, her comments practically ruin his sex life. He, in turn, decides to get back by posing as an astronaut and charming the anti-love author until she falls madly in love with him. At that time, he will expose her for the fraud he is certain she is. (This setup sounds similar to the one in the recent How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. In both movies, you kind of expect the characters to actually end up falling in love with each other in the end. Although that does happen here, the screenplay takes a few wonderfully wacky twists to do it.)

What’s amazing about Down With Love is that it faithfully (perhaps even religiously) recaptures the look and feel of the Hudson/Day comedies while still maintaining an edge of parody. The best example is during the movie’s adoption of that old split-screen technique. During one very funny sequence, the screen splits in half horizontally. Barbara is lying on the floor of her apartment in the bottom half of the screen; on the top half, Catcher is on the floor of his place doing push-ups. As they talk on the phone, the split-screen image makes it look like they are having sex, thereby underscoring the veiled sexual nature of the conversation they are having. There are a lot similar gags sprinkled throughout, as the film tweaks the subliminal sexual tension of the old movies it clearly has such affection for.

The casting is crucial here. Ewen McGregor captures the right tone of Catcher, making him an irresistible cad. David Hyde Pierce plays what would have been the Tony Randall role, and he gets a lot of comic mileage out of it. But it’s the female lead who makes this bell ring. Once again, Renee Zellweger proves why she is one of my very favorite actresses. She is able to bring a genuine emotional quality to her roles, making her characters fully realized. For example, there is a scene late in this film during which Barbara explains her romantically pessimistic book. The scene is unusual – it’s intended to be funny, but only because Barbara is being so sincere. Zellweger plays it absolutely straight, capturing all the confusion and angst that drives the character, and by doing so, makes the moment absolutely hilarious. In the wrong hands, the explanation might have seemed like a labored plot device; in Zellweger’s, it turns into a prime piece of satire.

Unlike Far From Heaven, which achieved real meaning, Down With Love’s recreation of an older movie genre is little more than a stunt. However, it’s a stunt filled with fun and a seemingly endless supply of wit. It must have taken a lot of preparation to pull this off so effectively. Isn’t it nice to know that some filmmakers actually take the time to study – and perhaps even learn something – from the old movies so many of us cherish?

( out of four)

Down With Love is rated PG-13 for sexual humor. The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.

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