Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Peyton Reed

Cast: Renée Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, David Hyde Pierce, Sarah Paulson, Tony Randall

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sexual humor and dialogue)

Running Time: 1:40

Release Date: 5/16/03

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Romantic comedies as of late have been taking themselves far too seriously. Take, for example, this year's How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, which seemed to believe that its characters were worthy of serious romance and emotional catharsis. It's as if filmmakers think that these movies say something about the human condition and that by having two lovers unite in happiness at the end they will give us an understanding about love. Yeah, right. In Down with Love, one character states that the war of the sexes could be resolved if only the two leads find a way into each other's arms, and that's just the kind of jab to the ribs the genre's been needing for a while now. There's no attempt at drama here, just good, old-fashioned screwball comedy abounding with double-entendres and sight gags and anchored by two charmingly presentational and presentationally charming lead performances. It's amazingly simple and breezy stuff but how completely and unexpectedly refreshing it is.

It's New York City, 1962, and Barbara Novak (Renée Zellweger) has just arrived at the bustling metropolis of eight million and one to push her new book Down with Love, a call to female empowerment that argues that love has held women back in the workforce and society for far too long. To balance the social order, she suggests that women abstain from sex to learn to separate the act from love (with the help of chocolates, which she has discovered reproduces the same physiological reaction as sex) and eventually become equals with men. The pre-release buzz is high, which prompts a prominent men's magazine to assign its star journalist Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor) to write up a cover story on Novak. Catcher has little interest in the story and instead gets caught up with some old stewardess friends when he should be having lunch, dinner, or breakfast with Novak. With a few big marketing moves, the book becomes an overnight success, and Catcher is out of a prime interview. The book causes a revolution among women and royally annoys men, particularly Catcher, whom Novak reveals as the cad he is on national television. It's time for Catcher to get even by making her fall in love and showing her for what she really is.

The film pays homage to the style and humor of 1960s romantic comedies while adding a postmodern twist. The result is satirical but without resorting to mockery; the proceedings remain appealing.  The romance centers on deception—a plot gimmick that usually spells death in this genre—but it never takes it seriously. Catcher impersonates a shy, country-boy astronaut to get close to Novak, and of course, love blooms for both of them. What furthers the success of the setup is the way in which screenwriters Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake poke fun at the concept with a very late revelation, resulting in a very funny, step-by-step monologue (impressively done in a single, unbroken shot) that shows just how silly these devices can be. The entire romance still works, though, primarily because Ewan McGregor and Renée Zellweger are such likable actors. Both play the material up with affected relish, and of course, since both actors were in musicals recently, they have a well-earned song and dance number during the credits. Even the secondary romance between the central characters' respective editors is endearing, thanks mostly to David Hyde Pierce's neurotic worrywart.

The gags, from the not-too-subtle innuendo to the pratfalls to Tony Randall, are obvious but decidedly so. The film uses a split screen during phone conversations, which leads to the movie's most elaborate gag—combining the sexual and visual jokes. In it, the actors move and the screen divider rotates to get the characters in some fairly naughty positions. The other big visual gag is a sequence of preparation in which Frank Sinatra's crooning and Astrud Gilberto's bossa nova versions of "Fly Me to the Moon" take turns between scenes of McGregor and Zellweger getting ready for their date; the rooms they occupy are based in blues and pinks respectively. There's a scene that has Catcher and his editor switching apartments for the night, leading to a series of jokes revolving around the gizmos in Catcher's swinging bachelor pad. Then there are the throwaways, like a conversation between Novak and Catcher after she has started her new women's magazine Now and stolen all the female employees from Know, the men's magazine for which he writes. "Now" and "know" are thrown into the dialogue as often as necessary.

Down with Love starts to falter slightly near the end as the "will they or won't they get together?" thing is delayed for a bit too long, playing into the gimmicks it so successfully mocks until then, but that's too little too late to really hurt. This is a delightful romp and a chance for two talented stars to let loose and have some fun. Most importantly, though, it gives me a renewed hope in romantic comedies; even I'll admit that's an accomplishment.

Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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