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Thursday, May 22, 2003 02:20 pm

Movie Review - Down With Love

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Down With Love

Down With Love

Is it a romantic comedy or a Mad parody of one? Down With Love, directed with great panache by Peyton Reed (Bring It On), works as both, providing big laughs and an affectionate nod at a quaint sub-genre relegated to the realm of afternoon airings on the Turner Classic Movies network. Down With Love is built around a gimmick, but one that doesn't grow old. The film surprisingly provides more than a little insight into not only the movies that used to be made, but the way in which we watch them.

Down With Love is filmed entirely in the style of a 1960s sex comedy. Think of Pillow Talk starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson and Boys Night Out with Kim Novak and James Garner. Made in the days before Women's Lib, these garishly colored comedies paired a male chauvinist pig with a slightly ditzy but on-the-cutting-edge-of-liberation blonde (and they were almost always blond). Each was flanked by a best pal: the man-hungry, wisecracking, more sophisticated female foil and the fussy male second banana who always talked about scoring with the ladies, but who was obviously homosexual and usually played by Tony Randall, whose appearance here lends his tacit approval to Reed's sendup.

Love's romantic rivals are the twinkly Renee Zellweger as New England author Barbara Novak, and Ewan MacGregor as Catcher Block, a swinging, womanizing cad whose columns for a leading men's magazine have made him a Manhattan celebrity. It's 1962, when cardboard skylines, expensive fashions, and ornate sets resembling the Jetsons' interior decorating were the norm and Madison Avenue was ruled by cigar-smoking, middle-aged white men. Barbara's first book is Down With Love, a how-to book for women on how they can achieve equality both inside and outside the bedroom by eating more chocolate and having more casual sex. Arriving in New York, where she becomes friendly with her man-hungry, wisecracking, sophisticated editor Vikki (Sarah Paulson), the small-town writer becomes an immediate sensation.

Catcher is ordered by his fussy friend and boss Peter (David Hyde Pierce) to interview Barbara for a cover story. But since his sex life has taken a beating after Down With Love was published, he decides to turn the piece into an expose by disguising himself as a Texas-bred astronaut to tempt Barbara to fall in love with him and thus force her to betray her book's advice.

Screenwriters Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake have an obvious affection for their sugary storyline. Even when they're parodying it, as in a cleverly staged split-screen phone conversation between Zellweger and MacGregor, there's no condescension.

Zellweger is, of course, a perfect choice for the role. Her cheeky countenance and white-bread purity suggest both the innocence and an underlying subversion necessary to make the end of the movie work. MacGregor was a surprise to me; while not the chiseled presence that Hudson and Garner were, his catlike prowl and Scottish burr make up most of the difference. Paulson, who appears to have studied a few Eve Arden movies, is the next Elizabeth Perkins or Bonnie Hunt if she wants to be. And Pierce, who has patented the fastidious is-he-gay sidekick in his Emmy-winning role on Frasier, amps the camp up a notch or two and steals the picture from his co-stars.

The technical trappings give Down With Love its peculiar verisimilitude. The old-fashioned Cinemascope logo that introduces the credits, Jeff Cronenweth's sumptuous Technicolor cinematography, and the snappy orchestral jazz score composed by the perfectly cast Marc Shaiman all add to a meticulous and slavish devotion to period detail. Not of the real 1962 New York, mind you, but of its depiction in the Movie Universe. Which, thanks to this movie, is still a fun place to visit.

(Running time 1:40, rated PG-13)
Grade B+

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