One of last year’s best films, Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven,” was a solemn evocation of the Douglas Sirk melodramas of the 1950s, done to match that movie era’s artificial tone, color-saturated suburban look and social mores. But its themes of homosexuality and interracial romance took us places Sirk could not.
Peyton Reed attempts a similar feat in the far sunnier “Down With Love,” a highly stylized homage to the Rock Hudson-Doris Day romantic comedies that crackled with gender politics and sexual tension.
“Down With Love,” which stars Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger, doesn’t so much crackle as pop. It has enough double entendres to fill a D-cup, but it has a premise that would have burned a hole in the screen in 1962, when its story is set.
Zellweger’s Barbara Novak, the author of a self-help best seller promoting female empowerment through casual sex, is a far randier proto-feminist than the chaste working women played by Doris Day. In her book, virtue is a vice and the best way to a man’s heart is with a dagger.
Her craven disregard for male vanity puts her at odds with the board of directors of her publishing company, whose members refuse to promote her book until their wives start cutting them off. And she’s seen as a challenge by lady-killer journalist Catcher Block (McGregor), who tries to make her fall in love with him by withholding sex from her.
The attraction of the first half of the film is its imitative style, the pretty-in-pink sets and costumes, the actors’ exaggerated facial and body language, the use of split screen, rear projection and swipe images, the hand-painted skyline with its condensed Manhattan landmarks.
Just when all this eyewash begins to irritate, the story takes a turn that hurls “Down With Love” into a third act that is pure enchantment. Everything that follows is silly, overdone … and a delight.
Hollywood seems to have found its new Cary Grant in McGregor, who scored as an idealized heartthrob in “Moulin Rouge” and backs that with a pitch-perfect rendition of a vapid playboy rating a comeuppance.
Zellweger won’t remind anyone of Doris Day. She has neither Day’s beauty nor her voice, though she does her Trixie Hart best in an end-credit duet with McGregor. However, she has a coquettish quality (when was that last considered a good thing?) that plays well with the devious Barbara Novak.
Reed maintains in the press notes that his film doesn’t show or say anything “that wouldn’t have worked in an early-sixties romantic comedy.” I beg to differ. The split-screen sex that Catcher and Barbara unknowingly mime in one hilariously vulgar sequence would have armed the Catholic Legion of Decency.
The obligatory male and female sidekicks are played well by David Hyde Pierce, doing his best Tony Randall impression as lovelorn magazine owner Peter MacMannus, and Sarah Paulson, as Barbara’s frustrated editor. Making you laugh by his presence alone is Randall, a fixture in the Hudson-Day movies, in a cameo as the ogre who runs Barbara’s publishing company.
In the spirit of the film’s buoyant campiness, may I say, up with “Down With Love”?