David Hyde Pierce
1 Hr., 41 Mins.
Down with Love September 28, 2018
author. As the film opens, she’s still in the throes of pitching the idea of the self-help guide — to be called “Down with Love” — to Banner House. After the movie saunters toward its middle act, Barbara is a best-selling writer — a Byron Katie for the Cold War era, you might say.
The book is, essentially, a how-to. It details the ways a woman’s life can be improved if she were to forget about marriage and settling down — really anything falling under the domestic banderole — and simply go about living life without depending on a man. Sex without love? The crux. Replace the opposite sex with candy bars, if need be. An appealing sort of provocateur, Barbara becomes a media sensation. She eases into the coveted role of the talk-show fixture; she becomes the woman every other woman admires. Men — who needs ‘em? — are apoplectic.
One of those red-faced males is an Adam West-looking star journalist named Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor). When not writing Caity Weaver-style cover stories for Know, a fashion-slash-culture magazine, he embodies the archetype of the world-class womanizer — the kind of lothario who has Bond-like gadgets permeating his mod apartment to impress his conquests.
You’d think he’d admire Barbara, given the whole “sex without love” ideal is his brand. But his aversion knows no bounds. When Barbara’s editor, a flip-haired cat named Vikki (Sarah Paulson), tries to get the journalist to do a cover story on her client, Catcher churlishly stands Barbara up via telephone with daytime soap-level recurrence, as if it were an all-encompassing side hustle. Fuck women!, the incorrigibly women-fucking Catcher’s subconscious dependably goes.
Barbara won’t have it. In retaliation, while guesting on a variety program, she talks about a chapter in “Down with Love” — entitled “The Worst Kind of Man” — and declares that the best encapsulation of this type of person is Catcher Block. Shit! Like clockwork, the man’s quickie-partner menagerie empties. Pardon the tired adage but, in Catcher’s earl-grey eyes, it’s payback time.
Tucking his ethical standards away, the name of the game’s seducing and destroying. Catcher’s only chatted with Barbara over the phone, so what might happen if he disguised his voice and pursued a cinematic kind of courtship? How disgruntled the women of the world would be after finding out that the paragon of independence is capable of loving with a capital-L after all.
What comes next is a dubious sort of love story; the ending of the movie, an inverse of the Grease (1978)-popularized sense of the “middle ground,” is especially a nuisance if you’re thinking the movie’s going to really go the men-composting empowerment route. But Down with Love was never supposed to be a feel-good romance anyway: it’s a pastiche, a jabbing at the hoopla that characterized rom coms aplenty pre-Vietnam.
The movie, released a year after Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002), which memorably, and almost perfectly, invoked the style, tone, and acting of Douglas Sirk’s pioneering soap operas from the 1950s, is a near-exact replica of the sex farces of the late-1950s and early ‘60s. Even Tony Randall, an actor who either played the lead or the ancillary part of the goofy pal in many of these sorts of movies, has a guest appearance.
Here, Zellweger and McGregor embody parts that would have otherwise been taken on by Doris Day and Rock Hudson. Down with Love, with its geometric, primary-colored design, and penchant for split-screen-utilizing phone conversations, most obviously apes the look and feel of Day and Hudson’s most acclaimed partnership, Pillow Talk (1959). That film, too, involved a womanizer wooing a woman while pretending to be someone else. And that film, too, involved a heroine who championed independence who ultimately wanted a picturesque sort of romance at the end of the day
The Day-slash-Hudson movies were and are entertaining. But the gender politics, at the time considered modern, are nonetheless slanted and sometimes distracting. The forays all, basally, made it clear that a woman who didn’t prioritize romance above everything else was really lying to herself. That Down with Love, bolstered by a hilariously overwrought plot twist, maintains the sexist reoccurrence helps point out the antiquated rom com’s many contrivances. I do wish, though, that, like Far with Heaven did, the feature did a complete rewrite rather than a slightly subversive upholding. What if our central Barbara actually did flip the bird to the man who’s toyed with her for the length of a movie? I always wanted Day to do the same even when Hudson putatively softened.
By keeping in touch with the beats of the no-sex sex comedies from which it takes inspiration, Down with Love becomes about as good instead of better than. Yet this is only vaguely disappointing. The recreation is so uncannily good — though it can’t be stopped from throwing in a for-laughs musical sequence or two — that most of the film’s fun stems from seeing how well Reed and his well-cast band of actors xerox the ever-familiar style. B+
own” isn’t synonymous with “cool” when it comes to the title of 2003’s Down with Love. Think of “love” as a totalitarian regime primed for a downfall, and “down” as a euphemism for “overthrowing.”
Down with Love, directed by Peyton Reed, takes place in New York City, in 1962. The titular call to arms is popularized, via a book, by Barbara Novak (Renée Zellweger, excellent), an up-and-coming