Down With Love
"Down With Love" is a film that asks important questions, such as: Why do people with no wit write and direct comedies? Why do studios think retro farces based on the Rock Hudson-Doris Day courtship comedies would be funny? Why do talented actors agree to play in them? (That's an easy one - the money.) But like "Far From Heaven," Todd Haynes's recent retro drama, "Down with Love" is an exhaustive effort that struggles to achieve a meaningless outcome. Set in a New York of the (romantic) mind in 1962, it parrots the conventions of the time.
The story is almost too trivial to relate: like "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," it brings us innocent young Maine librarian Barbara Novak (Renée Zellweger), come to New York to promote her new book, "Down With Love." The book is not innocent, though; it tells women to enjoy sex without marriage, just as men do. The book becomes an instant smash, with women of all ages and types being transformed by it. Through her hyper, chain-smoking editor Vicki Hiller (Sarah Paulson), she is supposed to meet confirmed bachelor Catcher Block (Ewen McGregor), hotshot writer for the men's magazine Know. But he has other plans: he wants to tease Barbara by making her fall in love with him without having sex, thus destroying the thesis of the book.
Well, it's a premise, though once it's in place there's nowhere for it to go. Like the recent "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days," of sordid memory, everything that happens is a repeat or variation on the postponement of an already-assured denouement. Catcher, supposedly a slick New Yorker, pretends to be a Texas astronaut with a Li'l Abner drawl; he swaps apartments with his sexually paralyzed editor Peter MacMannus (David Hyde Pierce, who plays the Edward Everett Horton role here), and we are off on an hour and a half of repeated double-entendres, missed connections, and a climax, if you'll pardon the word, in which everything is turned upside-down so that it can all be righted again.
Zellweger does her best here, which is very good (she even shows us once again, a la "Chicago," that she can sing and dance, which she does under the closing credits). McGregor, on the other hand, is so far out of his comfort zone in either incarnation, that it is painful to watch him try to be sexy and/or witty. He's so busy fighting his native Scots accent that everything he says as an American comes out in a monotone.
The retro direction and the sets and props and title style are meant no doubt to transport us back to the sixties, the time of sexual repression and closeted impulses. But director Peyton Reed, whose previous feature was the strangely absorbing cheerleader dramedy "Bring It On," has no feel for farce; his camera is never in the right place at the right time. And Jeff Cronenweth's cinematography has lit everyone so flat that the film looks like a cheap television show of the time. But the worst offenders are the writers, Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake (they also wrote "Bring It On"), who couldn't create even one truly witty line or moment in the whole script. Without that, there's no hope for this film.