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Published: Friday, 5/16/2003

Movie review: Down with Love ****

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Down With Love, director Peyton Reed's gloriously artificial, cotton-candied homage to the bubble-and-fizz celluloid martinis of Doris Day and Rock Hudson, is a pink pastel wonderland of wonderful pointlessness and wordplay and shameless double entendres stretching the length of entire scenes.

No smile is left unsmirked, no scene left unstuffed by the accoutrements of a Day-Hudson piffle: suggestive split-screen flirting, rear projection spotted through the back windows of taxicabs, exaggerated emotions, swinging bossa nova, stock footage of New York as a 1960s Kennedy-era Camelot of thick-framed glasses and pillbox hats, a star who's one part Sean Connery, two parts Frank Sinatra. It even opens with a double take. Not from the cast, the audience. The first thing we see is that old title card for Cinemascope.

The last thing - this hardly gives anything away - is our goofy, beaming lovers dangling from a helicopter over the Manhattan skyline. First stop: bliss. In life, they would fall to their deaths. In a movie this buoyant, you imagine them dangling all the way to Vegas. It tells the story of a small-town girl from Maine named Barbara Novak (Renee Zellweger) who moves to the Big Apple and becomes a sensation. (Of course.) There are 8 million inhabitants, the narrator informs - “Now make that 8 million and one!” She could be Day in Pillow Talk - if the decrepit Production Code of Day's day hadn't rendered her an interior decorator.

Reed, who turned a deceptively disposable cheerleading movie called Bring It On into a exuberant musical, doesn't have the mettle for straight satire. He's more into updating, gently ribbing old social norms. If that means Down With Love is never quite as daring or poignant as it might have been - it's never quite Far From Heaven played for laughs - that leaves room for a lot of smirk and snark.

Barbara writes a self-help book, Down With Love. In it, she outlines a life path Day only hinted at. Barbara thinks women should quit the love-and-marriage fast track and pursue careers and meaningless flings - “sex a la carte,” Barbara calls it. Just like men. Enter Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor), the James Bond of magazine journalism, “a ladies' man, man's man, man about town.” She threatens his schwing.

He sets out to bring Barbara to her knees - to expose her as a softie who actually wants love. But how? Well, pass yourself off as a Texas-bred astronaut, naturally. Reed borrows a page from those Day-Hudson comedies - often more sophisticated than Down With Love gives them credit - and takes a fairly conventional romantic comedy and twists it into such a perverse pretzel logic the plot becomes a coo-coo-crazy hook. In 1962, that hook was a device to deliver another fluffy romantic comedy. Today that hook exists to hang 1962 trappings from: swizzle sticks (green olive attached), beatniks, peaceniks, slim tuxedoes, casual sexism.

It's a dream 1962. There's real joy as McGregor gushes his plans in a stream-of-conscious prattle that's intended to clarify (like those Day-Hudson pictures intended) - but get only aggressively convoluted. Talking to fussbudget buddy Peter - the uptight Tony Randall role, played with a manic nervousness by David Hyde Pierce; later, complemented by a cameo from the real Tony - Catcher (get it: catch her) sorts out the situation:

“I'm taking her to your place, which she still thinks is my place by playing the guy she thinks I am who acts like you and has a meeting there with you and the guy who she still doesn't know I really am.”

Peter - out to bag Barbara's editor, Vikki (Sarah Paulson), who assumes he's gay, perhaps rightly - shouts back, more excited: “And I have to have my big night with Vikki at precisely the time you're having your big night with Novak but in your apartment, which she thinks is my apartment, but you'll be in my apartment pretending to be me who's really meeting you!”

The head spins.

The other major character is the movie itself - or rather the production design and the whole transparent movieishness about it. No color is repeated twice; Barbara's clothes alone, for starters, come in Barbie pink and picnic-table checkerboard. Strippers prance around in bright blue astronaut helmets that resemble what the space race might have been like if NASA were replaced by Wham-O. Newly liberated working women don't make an entrance - they sashay into a room, dropping their puffy coats in unison and flicking their hips from side to side, the samba and swing on the soundtrack turning up the heat ever so delicately.

Eyebrows raise to the plink of a piano key. Gags are greeted by the wa-wa of a trombone. New York itself is an absurdist painted jumble: Exit the Empire State Building, walk a block, and there's the Statue of Liberty. The moon is cardboard, at your window, and always full. Zellweger and McGregor, unruffleable in even the most goofy pose, aren't Day-Hudson surrogates so much as amalgamations of movie stars. They're cheerful phonies.

Down With Love is a lot of dress-up - a lot of trying on roles. It's a stunt, a gas. You could say it's pointless and I wouldn't argue. Though frankly, I think it's more fun than those old Day-Hudson movies, a beneficiary of hindsight. Arguably more than Pillow Talk or Lover Come Back, or Natalie Wood in Sex and the Single Girl, Reed captures that pause between the Eisenhower administration and the sexual revolution, and with more flair. When Barbara and Catcher get dressed for a date, the movie flips back and forth between their massive one-bedroom Manhattan digs. Catcher dances around to “Fly Me to the Moon,” rolling up his sock - while across town, Barbara dresses to Astrud Gilberto's bossa nova cover of the Sinatra tune, love and sex on her mind and not in that order. That cardboard moon shines down, and their songs crest, and then for no apparent reason than the pure pleasure of heedless joy, Barbara glides across her apartment. Pointless and wonderful.



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