*Down With Love (PG-13)
20th Century Fox
It's no surprise that Peyton Reed, director of the wonderfully biting and energetic cheerleader movie Bring It On, could pull off a retro, candy-colored sex farce that stands the Doris Day/Rock Hudson dynamic on its head.
Instead of the usual romance cliche -- country girl who's come to the big city meets city boy, tries to be modern and chic and eventually reveals her true-blue, down-home self and her deep desire to be nothing more than a wife and mother -- Down With Love takes romance clichs and tosses them around like so many olives in a martini shaker.
The country girl who's just arrived in the Big Apple (Voiceover: "New York City, 1962. If you've got dreams, this is the place to make dreams come true!") is Maine author Barbara Novak (Renee Zellweger). Her name is about to become a household word thanks to the wild success of her debut book Down With Love -- a manifesto urging women to avoid the entanglements of love if they ever want to become equals in the workplace. Sex, or "self-pleasuring" is acceptable, so long as it's not complicated by messy feelings that might lead to self sacrifice and male domination.
(In a nod to the viewer, cueing us that the movie is designed to be cotton-candy fluff, Barbara's all-pink book display replaces John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage in the bookstores when it becomes a number one bestseller.)
As Barbara's book climbs the charts, her rising star captures the interest of legendary playboy/journalist Catcher Block ("ladies' man, man's man, man about town"), played by Ewan McGregor. Block wants to expose Novak as the typical woman/fool for love he believes her to be. He disguises himself as Major Zip Martin, astronaut, and pursues her romantically while remaining utterly chaste, at least with her.
A swinging subplot that matches Catcher's neurotic, possibly homosexual, boss Peter McManus (David Hyde Pierce) with Barbara's feminist editor Vikki (Sarah Paulson), functions as a comic foil and scene-breaker, and awards Hyde Pierce with some of the movie's best moments. In a scene where Vikki accuses him of being "just like other men," meaning it as an insult, he turns, thinks and visibly brightens, declaring, "Hey! I'm just like other men!" then takes her with a swooshy, knee-buckling kiss.
Zellweger and McGregor work well together and are perfectly cast for this tongue-in-cheek treatment. But the production team -- art director, cinematographer, costume designer, set designer -- are the real stars of Down With Love. Producers Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks took the Academy Award in 2000 for American Beauty, another film swamped with style, beautifully shot and almost pristine in its attention to detail. Down With Love bubbles with saturated color and groovy 1960s-era ambience.
Zellweger and Paulson look fabulous in their costumes -- lavender double-breasted shift with matching straw hat, saffron halter dress with black-and-white houndstooth coat, robins egg blue silk pajamas embroidered in pink and gold -- and the apartment sets scream bachelor and bachhelorette pad, his in masculine shades of blue and chrome, hers in bouncy primary colors.
Sinatra-esque music also enhances the film, especially a zippy number by Zellweger and McGregor that runs alongside the closing credits. Don't leave too quickly or you'll miss the film's cute, suitably sexy and notably naughty footnote.
-- Kathryn Eastburn