Friday, May 16, 2003


Up with 'Down'
Behind retro-fluff look is a smart view of sex, American style


Mick LaSalle, Chronicle Movie Critic



Up with 'Down' / Behind retro-fluff look is a smart view of sex, American style
The city of New York is a star, along with Renee Zellweger, in "Down With Love," an old-fashioned yet newfangled romantic comedy set in 1963 that's fresh in 2003.



Up with 'Down' / Behind retro-fluff look is a smart view of sex, American style
Mythical: Ewan McGregor, Renee Zellweger


Down With Love: Comedy. Starring Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor. Directed by Peyton Reed. (PG-13. 100 minutes. At Bay Area theaters.)

"Down With Love" is a very smart, very shrewd movie, and the smartest, shrewdest thing about it is the way it masquerades as just a fluffy comedy, a diversion, a trifle. Hardly a trifle, "Down With Love" distills 40 years of sexual politics into 100 minutes, using the romantic-comedy conventions of an earlier time to comment on the governing social assumptions of yesterday -- and today, as well.

Set in 1963, the film is a send-up of the sexless yet sex-obsessed films made in the late 1950s and early '60s. The most obvious antecedents are the Doris Day-Rock Hudson movies, but "Down With Love" has its roots in all of that era's full-color, wide-screen comedies that dabbled in sophistication and presented a world in which everyone had a fully stocked bar and started drinking scotch at 11 in the morning.

Renee Zellweger plays Barbara, a small-town librarian who becomes a combination Helen Gurley Brown and Betty Friedan when she writes an incendiary advice book about sex and romance called "Down With Love." In an early scene, wearing a matching hat and frock and concealing a raging sense of self beneath a demure exterior, she meets with the board of her publishing house, all of them men who don't know what to make of her. The situation calls to mind scenes from old movies, in which the presence of a woman in a boardroom was automatically exotic.

"Down With Love" takes place in a New York City of big-finned automobiles and Checker taxicabs, replicating the yellow-tinted glossiness of early '60s movies. The apartments are bright and airy, with records stacked on the turntable, modular furniture and sweeping views. Director Peyton Reed uses '60s techniques, including split-screen, to re-create the breeziness of the period, but he and screenwriters Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake also capture something else, the era's myths.

Ewan McGregor, as the magazine writer and international playboy Catcher Block, embodies the ladies'-man myth, the sleek, lovable cad who is irresistible to all women, especially, it seems, airline stewardesses. He has Laurence Harvey's hair and walk coupled with a James Bond smirk, and when he stands up Barbara three times for an interview, she decides to get even by trashing his reputation. And then he, in turn, decides to get even, by romancing her under an assumed identity.

So we get that cherished '50s-'60s formula -- seduction as war. Along the way, the romantic progress of the semi-serious couple is paralleled with that of a klutzy couple, Sarah Paulson, as Barbara's editor, and David Hyde Pierce, as Catcher's best friend. Hyde Pierce's is the mildly gay-seeming role that Tony Randall would have played 40 years ago. In a wink to the past, Randall himself appears here in a featured part.

How does one take a 40-year-old romantic-comedy form, with all the conventions of a bygone time, and not have the result be repugnant to modern viewers? Romantic comedy deals with subjects everyone is passionate about -- love and sex -- so it has always been the most careful of genres, the one most dedicated to staying within an audience's prejudices and boundaries. That's why it dates so badly. Look at those Doris Day movies: For all their charm, those films actively feared female power and defined the limits of a woman's freedom as much as they celebrated it.

The brilliance of "Down With Love" is that, without ever grossly stepping outside of its 1962 mind-set (say, with explicit or even implicit sex between the two principals), it's not just modern but also beyond the merely modern. With zany deadpan humor that some will mistake for flippancy, it muscles the plot in a direction guaranteed to please modern audiences. In the process, it forces us to step back and see our own preconceptions and mores. It slyly reminds us that our modern perspective, like every "modern perspective" that preceded it, is doomed to obsolescence and isn't some final stage of enlightened social thought.

In this way, "Down With Love" is superior to "Far From Heaven," Todd Haynes' revisionist look at old-movie conventions. At the very least, "Far From Heaven," awash in its aggrieved political correctness, seems naive in comparison. "Down With Love" acknowledges the shifts of social history and is a better bet for a time capsule.

One last word about Zellweger, an actress at that lovely stage where she is unable to make a false move: She finds the truth in farce and the farcical in the truthful, and is very funny as a driven woman with an absurdly placid facade. Midway, Zellweger has a long, long monologue (shot in one unbroken take) on which the success of the entire movie depends. No screenwriters could hope to be in better hands. .

This film contains sex humor and sexual situations.

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