“Down With Love” can’t make up its mind whether it is a salute to the Doris Day-Rock Hudson/James Garner/Cary Grant movies of the 1960’s or a parody of them. Perhaps surprisingly, it works better as a salute, and never quite reaches the heights of the movies that inspired it.
The original movies were glossy fantasies that seemed to exist in that same 1960’s ring-a-ding-ding fantasyland Steven Spielberg brought us in Catch Me if You Can. They may have seemed instantly irrelevant in the era of Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and the sexual revolution, and yet they were as indispensible and — surprisingly — as inimitable and enduringly appealing as some of that decade’s other cultural touchstones.
We think of them as irretrievably retro and sometimes they were (as, for example, in The Thrill of it All, when Day’s doctor husband is profoundly threatened because she gets a job, which she quits after seeing him deliver a baby, reminding her what a woman’s true purpose is supposed to be). But most often, Day played supremely capable and confident working women, and it was the plot contrivances, not prudishness, that kept her characters from sexual encounters outside of marriage. Those movies also had some genuinely wicked commentary on the same conformist consumer culture that was the trigger for a lot of the political protest. Feminist critics like Molly Haskell now recognize that in their own way, these movies were very much a reflection and a part of the revolutions of the 1960’s.
In this movie, Barbara Novak (Renee Zellwegger) is the author of a book called Down With Love, that tells women to be strong and independent, to find fulfillment in work and to use men for sex but not become emotionally attached. Magazine writer and man-about-town Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor) decides to expose her as a hypcrite by making her fall in love with him. He pretends to be a shy astronaut who does not want to have sex unless he is in love. But Barbara — and Cupid — have a few surprises in store for him.
The movie begins by saying that “the time is now — 1962” and the period details are, well, swell, including flip hairdos, Tang, martinis, the twist, “Camelot” and clothes and furniture that are the kickiest! Catch is wearing a dinner jacket when he returns from a luau with the astronauts at Cocoa Beach. When Barbara’s book becomes a worldwide sensation, she receives the ultimate badge of fame — an Alfred E. Newman parody on the cover of Mad Magazine. But the best of the movie’s in-jokes is Tony Randall, who often played Hudson’s best friend, a neurotic rich guy who hopelessly envied Hudson’s confidence and success with the ladies in the original series of movies. In “Down With Love,” that role is exquisitely played by David Hyde Pierce, but Randall appears as the head of the publishing firm, demonstrating his impeccable timing and delivery. Indeed, the supporting players, sets, and costumes are so vivid that they make the main characters seem a little bland.
Parents should know that this movie has a good deal of sexual innuendo and double entendres, including an extended split-screen sequence that makes it appear that the characters are engaging in a number of sexual acts. There is brief strong language. Characters drink and smoke as evidence of sophistication. Equality of women is a humorous theme of the movie. As in the 1960’s movies it salutes, all characters are white.
Families who see this movie should talk about whether a similar plot could work in a movie set in 2003.
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy the movies that inspired it, especially Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back (both about a battle of the sexes in which the man pretends to be someone else to romance the woman) with Day and Hudson, The Thrill of it All with Day and Garner, That Touch of Mink with Day and Grant, Sex and the Single Girl (about a woman who writes a book promoting women’s sexual freedom) with Natalie Wood and Tony Curtis, If a Man Answers with then-married Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin, Come September with Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida, and Man’s Favorite Sport with Hudson and Paula Prentiss. They might also enjoy similar themes in earlier movies like Theodora Goes Wild (another story about a woman author of a notorious book) and Take a Letter Darling (man gets a job as secretary to a woman executive). And they might like to see more of the pre-“Odd Couple” Tony Randall in the fantasy The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao and the wild satire Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?