She is the most adorable!
— Barbara Walters on Renée Zellweger, The View 15 May 2003
Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor) 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 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. He’s light on his feet too: when Catcher leaves his spacious bachelor pad for a date one evening, his couple of half-dance steps into the elevator reveal an odd, entrancing grace.
At its best, Down With Love celebrates this fictional elegance with a corresponding airiness. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth’s camera seems especially fond of Catcher, who appears equally at ease in a dapper tux or a bath towel, smiling brightly balcony doorframe, stripping off his shirt as his best friend and editor, Peter McMannus (David Hyde Pierce) busies himself with paper arranging.
The epitome of the swinging single circa 1962, Catcher has a different girl for every meal of the day and a lesson to learn by the end of Peyton Reed’s Down With Love. A doting, if overeager, homage to the Rock Hudson-Doris Day-Tony Randall romantic comedy trilogy — Pillow Talk (1959), Lover Come Back (1961), and Send Me No Flowers (1964) — the movie commemorates a mini-era when excessive 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 delicacy and 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, so earnest and sweet, was also edgy, and self-confident enough that you believed she’d be okay if, say, Rock ran off with Tony. But however you read the politics of the Day-Hudson movies, the light touch was the pleasurable point.
Down With Love is rather less delicate. 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. Partly, this is a function of Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake’s thunky script. 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 I 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) 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, 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 director Peyton Reed (who previously made the dartishly 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 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, well, spending lots of time with Catcher, the obvious object of his affection. (In case you don’t notice this, Vikki points it out for you.)
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.