Ribald Retro Case File #146: Down With Love

Ribald Retro Case File #146: Down With Love

To be a film critic in this day and age is to be intimately in touch with your own powerlessness. But I don’t think I’m telling tales out of school when I say that The A.V. Club rules the Chicago film-critic community through fear, intimidation, and constant beatings with rusty chains. We swagger into the screening room four deep, our giant pompadours gleaming with Brylcreem. We menacingly pick our teeth with switchblades, the handles of our Saturday-night specials peeking ominously from our waistbands. 

When we get behind a movie like Down With Love, today’s entry in My Year Of Flops, our fellow critics know to fall in line or risk ending up on the receiving end of one of Scott Tobias’ vicious haymakers. In attitude and disposition, we’re more like a street gang in a ’50s exploitation movie than a collection of cultural commentators. We’re like the T-Birds and Pink Ladies from Grease, only with a greater appreciation for the films of Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. The folks who run the screening room would ban us en masse and end our decade-long reign of terror, except that they fear for the lives of their families.

So it’s not surprising that Chicago critics by and large embraced Down With Love even as their less enlightened/threatened peers gave it mixed reviews: It got two thumbs up from Ebert & Roeper and was No. 2 on the top 10 list of Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. As a loving, meticulous homage to the Doris Day/Rock Hudson sex comedies of the late ’50s and early ’60s, Down With Love was custom-designed for pop-culture geeks, which makes the critical shrug that accompanied its release even more surprising. Its commercial failure is a little more understandable: Apparently the general public in 2003 wasn’t salivating for a cheeky period pastiche that gently lampoons Camelot-era battle-of-the-sexes comedies.

Then again, I have a special relationship with the films that inspired Down With Love. While other, less perverse parents rented Chevy Chase vehicles for their children, my dad made a special point of renting me only musicals and Rock Hudson/Doris Day movies, as part of his surprisingly unsuccessful plot to make me gay.

When I was growing up, Rock Hudson represented strapping, lantern-jawed, super-masculine heterosexuality. My father also inexplicably felt the need to inform my 10-year-old self that Randolph Scott, who I of course knew from his performance in the 1935 Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical Roberta, the film that introduced “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” was gay as well, and lived for a time with his boyfriend Cary Grant. So I assumed from that point forward that all macho actors were closeted homosexuals. Why did my father tell me these things? Damned if I know. I do not have a normal dad. Nor did I have a normal childhood.

So when I watched Down With Love, I was filled with warm memories of childhood afternoons spent watching Rock Hudson and Doris Day romantic comedies. Mark Rappaport’s documentary Rock Hudson’s Home Movies does a fascinating, though academic job, unpacking the rampant double entendres and myriad winking references to Hudson’s homosexuality that litter his films. Re-watching the 1961 Hudson/Day vehicle Lover Come Back for a recent Inventory, I was struck by its unapologetic, unrelenting raunchiness. Operating solely through innuendo and intimation, it manages to be far filthier than any American Pie or There’s Something About Mary knockoff.

Bring It On director Peyton Reed pushes the all-consuming smuttiness of Hudson/Day movies to comic extremes in his fizzy retro concoction Down With Love. In the film’s most inventive sequence, Reed strategically moves around the center-line of a split screen until leads Ewan McGregor and Renée Zellweger appear to be pantomiming energetic sex acts while conversing on the phone. Then they hang up and enjoy an ecstatic cigarette.

Down With Love captures that glorious Camelot-era utopian American Triumphalism that decreed “Society doesn’t have to evolve any further, because it has been perfected.” We had a movie-star-handsome president, a glamorous fashion plate for a first lady, big shiny buildings stretching to the heavens, cars as big and sleek as rocket ships, and a thriving economy. Plus holy shit, we were going to the fucking moon. Everyone seemed to work in advertising and publishing, no lunch was complete without a martini or three, and every office boasted a crystal decanter of scotch to be used as often as possible. The future was now: That glorious tomorrow was today.

Everything was larger than life, literally. In the film, when first-time author Zellweger arrives in New York to promote her first book, she’s given a furnished apartment roughly the size of Buckingham Palace. Zellweger has written a manifesto titled Down With Love, which encourages women to have sex “à la carte,” without commitment or emotional attachment. In the film’s comic-book 1962, that’s a revolutionary conceit. After Zellweger’s book gets plugged on The Ed Sullivan Show, it becomes an international sensation over the course of a single montage sequence.

This brings Zellweger to the attention of Ewan McGregor, a hotshot reporter whose life is a never-ending ticker-tape parade of hot sex and dynamite scoops. In this clip, McGregor makes a dramatic entrance after his latest glamorous misadventure:

In order to get the scoop on Zellweger, who has called him out on national television as the worst kind of man, McGregor decides to go undercover as Zip Martin, a shy, bookish astronaut with a Southern drawl as gloriously, unmistakably phony as everything else in the film. Below, McGregor and Zellweger fall in love while experiencing every pop-culture phenomenon of the early ’60s—in less than a minute! That is some economical storytelling. 

McGregor nearly succeeds in his bid to discredit Zellweger, until a shocking, [and SPOILERRIFIC!] third-act twist, in which she reveals that he isn’t the only one operating under false pretense and a made-up identity. In this clip, the film once again takes late-’50s/early-’60s sex comedy conventions far beyond the point of sanity in a tour de force monologue in which Zellweger spills the beans on an insanely convoluted plan for revenge hatched when she was but a mere mousy secretary pining desperately for boss McGregor. 

Zellweger’s epic monologue marks both the film’s high point and the moment when it begins to lose steam. It’d be tempting to call Down With Love a triumph of style over substance, but when you’ve got style like this, who needs substance? In its first two acts, the film skips giddily from one fabulous set and ridiculous scenario to another in a Pixy Stix rush of innuendo, pastel colors, and gleeful comic invention. Once emotions enter the equation, it slows down as it unpacks one hellaciously convoluted plot and pushes its unlikely lovers apart, then back together. Down With Love zips out of the gate, then hits some rough patches toward the end, but it rebounds spectacularly with a delightful end-credits song and dance number featuring its leads at their most dazzlingly charismatic. 

David Hyde Pierce steals the film as McGregor’s adorably milquetoast boss, a neurotic fussbudget desperately in love with Zellweger’s editor (Sarah Paulson of Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip semi-fame). Remarkably, Pierce doesn’t have to alter his tweedy persona in the slightest to play the Tony Randall figure. Pierce has always been our generation’s Tony Randall; it just took Reed, a sharp script, and the perfect vehicle to make that apparent. Meanwhile, Randall himself has a winning cameo as the dyspeptic head of the company that publishes Zellweger’s manifesto.

Reed’s peppy period pastiche is above all else an exercise in artifice. Nothing about it even pretends to be real. It luxuriates in its own extravagant phoniness, in hilariously unconvincing rear-projection, transparent sets, and far-fetched plotting. Its characters are less flesh-and-blood human beings than sentient paper dolls that swagger and strut with smoothly choreographed precision. McGregor and Zellweger don’t play a man and a woman. They play MAN and WOMAN, or rather, the manliest man’s man and the girliest girl’s girl. Its irreverent take on sex and gender is defiantly adult and relentlessly juvenile. Its characters knock back booze, obsess over sex, and work glamorous jobs in publishing without having evolved emotionally beyond middle school. 

The film functions as a funhouse-mirror reflection of Mad Men. But where that show gives the go-go early-’60s world of dashing cads, lovelorn secretaries, and boozy businessmen tragic heft and an undercurrent of ineffable sadness, Down With Love recasts it as a pop-art cartoon, a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the fanciful Technicolor romps of yore. 

It’s pointless to deride Down With Love as smutty, cornball, fakey, and contemptuous of realism; it’s all these things deliberately, even transcendently. Like many satires, Down With Love risks getting mistaken for the very thing it’s spoofing. Like Far From Heaven and potential Case File The Good German, Down With Love belongs to a curious subgenre of period films shot in the style of the eras they depict. Reed and his gifted collaborators set out to make a film that looks like it was made in 1962, from the opening Technicolor credit onward, and they succeeded spectacularly, though critics and audiences alike wondered why they bothered. Apparently not everyone is lucky enough to grow up on Hudson and Day.

There are air quotes around everything in Down With Love except the infectious joy at its core. It’s about the glorious absurdity of the mating ritual, about our wonderfully bogus cinematic history, and a space-age future as filtered through an Art Deco past. A while back, AVQ&A revolved around what fictional universe we’d like to live in if given the chance. After revisiting Down With Love, I’d like to retroactively change my answer to the film’s shiny, happy New York fantasyland. It’s a world to get lost in, a world I plan to revisit over and over again.

Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success