Movies have always drawn on earlier works for inspiration, but new films based on period pieces have become something of a mode du jour. With the colorful abandon and devil-may-care attitude of a musical like Chicago or a nouveau-weepy like Far From Heaven, filmmakers examine existing social mores through the filter of an earlier time. Down with Love does just that, caricaturing contemporary attitudes towards gender issues and romance in the style of a Rock Hudson-Doris Day romantic comedy.
But don’t expect a bra-burning feminist screed or a profound look at the issues here. What’s delivered is loopy and light with wacky plot lines that get increasingly convoluted.
author Barbara Novak (Renee Zellweger) shoots to fame following the success of her international bestseller Down with Love. She espouses the belief that in order to gain equal status with men, women have to give up antiquated notions of romantic love, and just "have sex like a man," without the attendant emotional baggage.
Her theories are a hit with women, but don’t go down easy with Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor), a playboy-journalist at KNOW Magazine. He comes up with a plan to make Barbara fall in love with him and then publicly denounce her theories in an expose for his magazine. But Peter (David Hyde-Pierce), Catch’s anal-retentive editor and friend, is uneasy about Catch’s plan to ruin Barbara. He’s secretly in love with Barbara’s literary agent and best friend Vicki (Sarah Paulson), and is anxious to do anything to make her fall in love with him.
Down with Love evokes the style of the sixties in a way that makes the movie appear dreamy and unreal, in no small way aided by the lavish sets. Catch’s bachelor pad is equipped with the latest gizmos that seal his reputation as a "lady’s man, man’s man, man about town". There’s an irrational exuberance to it all when Barbara dances in front of the window of her apartment, the captivating New York skyline as a backdrop.
Throughout the movie, Barbara and Catch make memorable entrances that border on the absurd, decked in outrageous color-coordinated costumes. The production values are superb and director Peyton Reed’s attention to detail delivers a consistency of style.
In spite of the artificiality of the comedic situations, Zellweger (Chicago, Me, Myself, & Irene) is never cloying or irritating and McGregor (Black Hawk Down, Moulin Rouge) performs with measured restraint. Hyde-Pierce and Paulson are ideal foils to the romantic leads. Together, the ensemble’s comedic timing is impeccable, milking the witty dialogue for laughs. There’s nothing subtle about the movie’s sense of humor though, which is best described as in-your-face verbal slapstick. Everything’s deliberately overdone and innuendoes fly fast and freely. The most inventive use of the split-screen technique in a long time is also an homage to period predecessors like Pillow Talk.
Down with Love doesn’t pretend to analyze serious issues, to examine the changing notions of romantic love, to bridge the gender gap, or to explain why men and women sometimes behave like they’re from different planets. It highlights what has changed against what has stayed the same through the years, all in a tone of airiest levity.
– Wenkai Tay