On Down with Love

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There are few films like Down with Love. I must say that the cultural significance of the 50s and 60s, and set deign, which is an exgeration of how we view those times now, made it for a really fun film to watch. According to The New York Times review:

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Rock Hudson and Doris Day starred in only three movies together, but their names are forever conjoined in the cultural memory, signifying the guilty pleasures of a supposedly more innocent era. The comedies they made for Universal from the late 1950’s to the mid-60’s – with each other and with surrogates ranging from Cary Grant to Gina Lollobrigida – were the product of a moment when the incipient sexual revolution collided with the moribund Hollywood Production Code in an explosion of bright color, lush music and naughty innuendo.

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These entertainments (”Pillow Talk,” ”Lover Come Back” and ”Send Me No Flowers”) were at once dopey and ingenious, wholesome and sophisticated, teasing their audiences, as the romantic principals teased each other, by pretending to be what they were not: subversive when they were in fact conventional, and vice versa.

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”Down With Love,” Peyton Reed’s buoyant homage to the Hudson-Day pictures, which opens in Manhattan today and nationwide next Friday, wears its affection for that bygone era on its sleeve. And also on its collars, ties, hats, cuff links, dressing gowns, slim tuxedos and curvy sheaths. Every inch of every Cinemascope frame — from the zippy title credits to the geographically absurd Manhattan sets to the modular furniture to the glass martini pitchers — is designed to plunge you into a fairy-tale 1962. Marc Shaiman’s score deftly blends finger-popping lounge jazz with velvety orchestral swoons, while Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography approximates the bold, viscous tones of old-fashioned Technicolor.

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The Hudson-Day roles are taken up by Ewan McGregor and Renée Zellweger, unflappable veterans of the recent campaign to revive the movie musical. They demonstrate together, as they did (separately) in ”Moulin Rouge” and ”Chicago,” a thoroughly charming immunity to embarrassment. They also remind you that the real Rock Hudson and Doris Day flourished in the days before personal trainers, Diet Coke and the Atkins Diet turned Hollywood into the land of ropy biceps and flat tummies. Mr. McGregor’s wiry, wolfish energy is more like the young Sinatra than the bulky, slow-moving Hudson, but never mind. His high-flying playboy, a magazine writer named Catcher Block, is a lithe Lothario, a woman’s man, a man’s man, a man about town.

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And if Ms. Zellweger puckers where Ms. Day might have grimaced, she manages, as Ms. Day did, to swivel engagingly between goofiness and sex appeal, and to look her grown-up age even when she is called upon to be utterly childish.

Like Civil War enthusiasts in a Virginia cow pasture, Ms. Zellweger and Mr. McGregor don period costumes to re-enact a legendary skirmish in the battle of the sexes. Their fidelity to the past is impressive, but it is hard to see the point of the exercise, or to feel that much is at stake.

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Ms. Zellweger is Barbara Novak, who arrives in Manhattan from Maine to oversee the publication of her book, ”Down With Love,” an antiromantic manifesto that argues for the equality of the sexes in matters sexual and professional. Her smart, neurotic, chain-smoking editor, Vicki Hiller (Sarah Paulson), wants Barbara to be profiled by Catcher, a prize-winning gadabout journalist for a men’s magazine called Know.

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After a deliciously contrived setup, Catcher decides to write an exposé, which he will clinch by making Barbara, who is dogmatically committed to casual sex, fall in love with him. This he does through the elaborately offhand ruse of pretending to be an astronaut, which involves putting on glasses, covering his Scot’s burr in a mock-Texas twang and swapping his gadget-filled bachelor pad for the fussy digs of Peter McMannus (David Hyde Pierce), his editor and foil.

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Mr. Pierce, ever the paragon of uptight prissiness, is playing what was, 40 years ago, the Tony Randall role, and it is delightful to see Mr. Randall himself saunter through a scene or two, bestowing his sly, patriarchal blessing. ”Down With Love” works hard to earn it and is, for the most part, intelligent and amusing, even if it never achieves the full-tilt zany desperation of Delbert Mann’s ”Lover Come Back,” the best of the real Hudson-Day movies.

Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake, the screenwriters, have shaken together a canny cocktail of period vernacular and deliberately labored double entendres, some of which extend for entire scenes. The best moments have a glorious, hectic artificiality, emphasized by split screens, gimmicky editing and the obviously cardboard three-quarter moon that bobs in the ersatz Manhattan sky.

As always, the final destination on this jaunt is matrimony, and the filmmakers, so meticulous in their imitation of the dress and decor of the Kennedy era, are unabashed revisionists in matters of sexual politics. Their tribute is also an updating and a critique, informed by the commonsensical feminism that Barbara Novak’s best seller parodies and also by an impatience with the hypocrisy that was the source of all the fun to begin with. This movie can, without blushing, make jokes that acknowledge the existence of premarital and nonheterosexual sex, things that its ancestors could address only in code.

The obsolescence of that code – and of the Code itself – has the effect of flattening out the movie’s humor and making its strenuous cleverness feel, in the end, more dutiful than daring. The most obvious recent point of comparison is Todd Haynes’s ”Far From Heaven,” which was devoted to reanimating the Technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk, several starring Hudson. (”Down With Love” and ”Far From Heaven” might best be described as offerings to the memory of Ross Hunter, who produced both ”Pillow Talk” and Sirk’s ”Imitation of Life” in the same year.)

Mr. Haynes plunged into the subtext of the old movies, exploring their deep springs of anxiety about race, marriage and sexual identity. Some of these were present in the comedies as well: their hectic ridiculousness reflected a world in which the rules of conduct, in the bedroom, the workplace and everywhere else, were being rapidly rewritten.

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But Mr. Reed snips that subtext away, and his movie takes the mandate of inoffensiveness much more seriously than its winking, tongue-in-cheek predecessors ever did. As it tweaks the attitudes and behaviors of the past, ”Down With Love” is careful to uphold the right-thinking norms of the present, denying the audience the pleasures of subversion and satire and managing, in spite of its knowing good cheer, to be less sophisticated than what it imitates.

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In spite of all the manic high jinks, the laughter here arises not from confusion and hysteria, but from complacency, which is not as funny.

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2 thoughts on “On Down with Love

  1. Pingback: On Sweet Home Alabama | The Progressive Democrat

  2. Pingback: On The Island | The Progressive Democrat

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