Down With Love

Zipping past "Ban The Bomb" protesters to ultra-modern offices, swanky nightclubs, and gadget-filled, skyline-kissed apartments, the cast of Down With Love inhabits a world that's less a throwback to the romantic comedies of the late '50s and early '60s than one left vacuum-sealed for future use. In the film's version of 1962, New York City wears Technicolor and moves to a bossa nova beat, fueled by cocktails and driven by sex. Or at least the talk of it: As in the Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedies that inspired it, Down With Love concentrates on the build-up and leaves the release for an undetermined later point, presumably seconds after the screen flashes "The End." The film's re-creation of a bygone, hornier era of romantic comedies–from the production design through Bring It On director Peyton Reed's spot-on mimicry of period style–counts as achievement enough. Yet Down With Love not only makes those conventions work, but also makes them look as if they never went out of style. Like Far From Heaven, the film doesn't send up its inspiration so much as reboot it. It may be hard to believe that the formula still has life left in it (or that Rock Hudson movies could serve as the secret font for two memorable films in a year's time), but such thoughts become merely theoretical from the moment the eye-catching credits hit the title song. "Down With Love," a Harold Arlen standard, also lends its name to the scandalous book written by Down With Love heroine Reneé Zellweger, a first-time author with an easy plan to normalize relations between the sexes: Women should keep sex casual, focus on their careers, and, most importantly, never fall in love. In spite of the best efforts of her chain-smoking editor (wittily played by relative unknown Sarah Paulson), the book meets with initial apathy when its publishers neglect to promote it and a profile by Pulitzer-winning cad-about-town journalist Ewan McGregor fails to materialize. Too busy attending to an endless parade of stewardesses and showgirls, he begins to regret his decision when, through some savvy cross-marketing, Zellweger's book becomes an influential bestseller from Cleveland to Chongqing. Encouraging McGregor's second thoughts is the lovelorn David Hyde Pierce, perfectly slotted into the fey-sidekick role filled by Tony Randall in so many Hudson comedies. (In a casting coup, Randall himself shows up like a patron saint in a funny bit part as Zellweger's publisher.) After McGregor disguises himself as a naïve astronaut, he and Zellweger begin a continuously delayed romance carried out via Broadway balconies and cross-town phone conversations, the most memorable of which finds a use for split-screen effects more salacious than anything Brian De Palma has tried. As it did for Hudson and Day, that split-screen functions as an emblem of the search for equal partnership. The equality plays out on the screen, as well; Zellweger's smart vulnerability is well-matched by McGregor's too-suave-for-the-world performance. The script by Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake (best known, if at all, for working on The Nanny) invests the relationship with wit and even some insight, as a reminder that romantic comedies can actually say something as they go about the roundelays of courtship. Down With Love may register most immediately as a snappy whirl of visual gags, double entendres, overheated romance, and comically oversized living quarters, but beneath the exuberance of this fond counterfeit is a heartbeat as powerful as that of any film anchored in the present.

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