Clean and Fake
Down with love, let’s liquidate all its friends,
The moon, the June, the roses, and rainbows’ ends.
Down with songs that moan about night and day.
—“Down With Love”
“We really liked the idea of making New York look overly clean and fake, and making no bones about the fact that we shot it on a back lot.” Peyton Reed’s commentary for the Fox DVD release of Down With Love is as enthusiastic and meticulous as any I’ve heard. He knows his studio history and loves movie stars, giving vivacious background on just about every color, set design, and casting choice: “It was important who could do that style of comedy but also to cast for specific faces that felt like faces from ‘60s movies.”
Reed’s movie takes the general form of an early 1960s bedroom comedy, complete with verbal (and physical) double entendres, assertively perky women, and pleasantly clueless men. To achieve such narrative lilt, the film takes its particulars very seriously. The widescreen cinematography is gorgeous, the split screens cute, the dialogue sweetly “musical,” the costumes dee-lightful. And, as Reed points out in his commentary track for the DVD, he was tickled by the idea of the guy who shot Fight Club, Jeff Cronenweth, “shooting a movie that paid homage to Doris Day and Rock Hudson movies.”
To this end of homage, the “chemistry” between performers, as Reed describes it, had to be sharp. Easily the sharpest exists between Ewan McGregor and David Hyde Pierce, who take up the Hudson and Tony Randall roles, respectively. As Catcher Block, McGregor plays lady-killer with devastating charm. Catcher has an enviable reputation as a “ladies man, man’s man, man about town,” that is, a man who can please everyone. The star writer for Know, a slick men’s magazine, he’s used to getting his way with everyone, utterly charming and completely enchanted by himself, and given to changing his shirt in his office and snapping his fingers like Frank Sinatra. Catcher has a different girl for every meal of the day, with no compunctions about blowing off one stewardess for another. He’s endearingly light on his feet too: when Catcher leaves his spacious bachelor pad for a date one evening, McGregor’s couple of dance steps into the elevator reveal an odd, entrancing grace.
At its best, Down With Love celebrates such elegance with a corresponding airiness. Catcher looks equally at ease in dapper tux or bath towel, as unselfconscious when he’s mixing drinks in his bachelor pad (equipped with, as Reed calls it, a “really bitchin’ television set”) or stripping off his shirt (in his apartment or in his office—matters not), while his sniffy best friend and editor, Peter McMannus (Pierce) busies himself with paper arranging. Also fun are the several driving scenes that pair off the boys and the girls, same-sex-wise, with green screen posing as rear screen projection; these include a couple of moments where, as Reed also notes with glee, cars on one side of the street are from the ‘60s and on the other, from the ‘50s.
Indeed, these boys are as lovely together as Hudson and Randall, and in them, the film finds its way to becoming a doting, if overeager, homage to the Day-Hudson-Tony Randall trilogy—Pillow Talk (1959), Lover Come Back (1961), and Send Me No Flowers (1964). Down With Love commemorates a mini-era when excess stylishness and wry in-jokiness were of a piece. (Randall makes a cameo appearance, as a straight man.) The fun of those original films lay in their agile innuendo, their trust that audiences would get the double and triple entendres without any overt coaching. Even if viewers didn’t “know” Hudson was gay, the movies’ send-up of gender roles and sexual performances was immediate and sharp. And Doris Day’s perky blondness, simultaneously earnest and sugary, was also edgy, and self-confident enough that you believed she’d be okay if, say, Rock ran off with Tony. However you read the politics of the Day-Hudson movies, the delicacy was the wholly pleasurable point.
Down With Love is rather less subtle. Here the gags are stated and restated, visually and verbally. As Day to McGregor’s Hudson, Renée Zellweger plays proto-feminist author Barbara Novak with a sometimes excruciating determination. The moment Barbara arrives in NYC, all done up in her styley white hat and adorable suit, it’s clear that she’s on a mission. Indeed, she has her heart set on making her new women-should-abandon-love-and-have-sex-like-men manifesto, Down With Love, a bestseller.
Though the men in the publishing company boardroom (all of whom have initials as names) are appalled by the idea, her chain-smoking editor Vikki (Sarah Paulson) is thrilled and cagey. Despite her fellow editors’ expectations that she’s only in the room to fix their coffee, Vikki comes up with her own marketing campaign for the book, including a cute bit where she gets Judy Garland to sing a “song of the book” on Ed Sullivan. Sales take off globally (a montage shows bookstores in the Soviet Union, Red China, Britain, and France, all with women purchasing the pink-covered tome—a montage that Reed remarks as demonstrating the myopic nationalism of the period) and suddenly Barbara is a star, living in a penthouse apartment and glorying in her pink and yellow outfits.
By the time Barbara appears on tv to call out Catcher as the worst sort of typical man (he’s cancelled their interviews repeatedly, in order to score with numerous women), the power of advertising is clear. With Barbara’s book of rules all the rage, Catcher’s dating career looks to be over. Resolving to get even, he dupes Barbara by adopting a hick persona, namely astronaut Zip Martin. Donning a pair of glasses and a thick accent, not to mention an aversion to sex, he endeavors to make her fall in love with him and disprove her premise.
Even if you didn’t know what happens in Pillow Talk, you’d be hard-pressed not to know what happens next. Even so, Down With Love lurches from couple-making moment to moment, the innuendo now splashed all over the surface. It’s as if Reed (who previously made the vigorously clever Bring It On), is worried that viewers won’t understand. And so, instead of (and in clunky homage to) the endearing moment when Day and Hudson’s toes barely seemed to touch as they extended their legs from separate soapy tubs and flirted on split screen phones in Pillow Talk, here you see Zellweger and McGregor literally doing calisthenics to make it look like they’re having sex—missionary, oral, and otherwise—in a series of horizontal and vertical split screens.
The film’s most nearly saving grace, aside from McGregor’s adorable dance steps, comes from an unexpected source: Niles Crane as Peter. Fey, neurotic, and painfully quick-witted, Peter has an ostensible crush on Vikki. In spite and because of this yearning, he spends lots of time with Catcher, seeking advice on how to snare the woman’s heart, but also seeking the chance to be with Catcher, the obvious object of his affection.
They meet in the office, in the backs of cabs, in Catcher’s apartment over martinis with olives. But even as such sets are outrageously artificial (as Reed says, he wanted to make the Mahogany Room, the “masculine”-looking restaurant where the guys hang out, “look fake, but not so fake that you felt like a character would lean against a wall and it would fall over”), they precisely convey the intimacy and the ruse that Catcher and Peter are enacting at the same time. Indeed, the scenes featuring Peter and Catcher—conniving, cooking, worrying—achieve a precision and buoyancy that the rest of Down With Love doesn’t quite. These two make all their moments, from socks measuring to sauce tasting, into tight little comic duets.