The summer's frothiest film has arrived in the retro-chic shape of this swinging romantic comedy. Set in a stylized version of 1962 Manhattan, Down with Love is a slice of Hollywood escapism rarely seen nowadays. A light and fluffy "battle of the sexes" comedy--borrowing an idea from Richard Quine's 1964 Tony Curtis- and Natalie Wood-led film Sex and the Single Girl--it's potentially a hard sell on a cynical 21st-century audience. Thankfully, the quirky direction, witty script, charismatic performances and playful yet elegant design make this as timeless a piece of fun as any of its '60s progenitors.
Renée Zellweger plays Barbara Novak, author of Down with Love, a feminist self-help manual that turns the tables on the old boys' network and promises girls equality in the workplace and sex "a la carte." As the book's title suggests, this empowerment is achieved by an unequivocal, cold-turkey rejection of the big L. While she might preach the gospel of Germaine Greer, she wears the wardrobe of Doris Day and affects a coquettish walk so wigglesome she might set the movement back irrevocably. Matching every sashay with a swagger is Ewan McGregor's Catcher Block, a "ladies' man, man's man, man about town." A Pulitzer-winning journalist playboy with a penchant for air hostesses, Block's fantasy lifestyle is the perfect setting for the ebullient McGregor grin.
Before long, every woman on the planet has a copy of Novak's book, and the men of Manhattan never had it so bad. For Block--the man who had the keys to the sweet shop--playboy life has turned a little sour, so he hatches a plan to debunk Ms. Novak's anti-love theories using his womanizing wiles to make her fall for him. This cat-and-mouse game, peppered with clever wordplay, has several laugh-out-loud moments along the way, and, like its influential '60s predecessors, Down with Love is enhanced by an engaging subplot involving some charming supporting performances. David Hyde Pierce (Frasier's Niles) is the bumbling, neurotic Peter MacMannus, Catcher Block's best friend and editor at KNOW magazine, where he is completely unable to discipline his star reporter. He soon falls for Novak's ballsy, chain-smoking editor, Vikki Hiller (Sarah Paulson), herself a victim of sexism within the austere gentlemen's club of a publishing house she works for. Along with plenty of laughs, both pitch-perfect performances add a human layer to contrast with the leads' screen-idol personas.
With its sassy, brassy score and slavishly styled jet-age, cosmopolitan look, this movie plays like a musical without any songs. Zellweger tiptoes through scenes ready to dance, and the clean-cut, sports-coated McGregor's turn is so reminiscent of his breakthrough performance in Dennis Potter's Lipstick on your Collar that he frequently seems on the verge of crooning. (The pair's musical pedigrees--Moulin Rouge, Chicago--only add to this expectation.)
Thanks to the stylized costume and production design, the look of Down with Love is a joy throughout (see Look, page 55). Director Peyton Reed (Bring It On) successfully apes an era of glamour now viewed as quaint without denigrating its enduring aesthetic appeal. The charming romantic comedy opens on the same weekend that Messrs. Fishburne and Reeves will again be considering their own red pill/blue pill reality dilemma in the Matrix sequel. For those who prefer to forget reality and lose themselves in the Hollywood lie, Down with Love will temporarily transport them to a happy, other world.
Opens Friday, May 15.