America, over the last decade, has enjoyed the comeback of swing dancing, prefab boy bands, and virginity. So perhaps it’s not all that bizarre that we’ve also entered into an ardent, if heavily self-aware, fascination with some of the squarest movies that Hollywood ever made. Down With Love, a playfully synthetic romantic comedy starring Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor, is a succulent piece of postmodern fluff. It’s an homage to the daffy, nudge-nudge sex comedies of the late ’50s and early ’60s — white-telephone whimsies like That Touch of Mink and, especially, Pillow Talk, in which Doris Day and Rock Hudson spoke in ”innocent” double entendres as broad as Playboy cartoons, flirting up a storm against a backdrop so fake and bland that every corporate office, penthouse den, and sudsy marble bathtub looked like an airbrushed Life magazine spread for idealized middle-class living.
The director, Peyton Reed (Bring It On), working from a script by Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake, uses the genre of pastel sex farce to conjure up an America caught on the giddy precipice between straight and hip, love and sex, Eisenhower fuddiness and Kennedy swing. Zellweger plays Barbara Novak, a plucky small-towner in a blond flip hairdo who comes to Manhattan in her Jackie Kennedy suit to publish her sex-and-the-single-girl manifesto, Down With Love. The book advises women to halt the pursuit of marriage in favor of chasing equal opportunity in the workplace, not to mention carefree rolls in the hay. They should, in other words, be more like men; any overlaps with Sex and the City are strictly relevant.
McGregor, hair greased into an inky Hudson helmet, is Catcher Block, ladies’ man and star writer for Know magazine. The James Bond of men’s journalism, Catcher has been asked to do a story on Barbara. But since the women he invites to his bachelor pad tend to arrive in stewardess uniforms and leave the next morning, he decides to allay his secret fear of the aggressive modern female by demonstrating that Barbara’s book is bunk, baby. To prove that she can’t live without love, he chastely woos her by posing as a chivalrous, horn-rimmed Southern astronaut named Zip Martin — in other words, the cliché projection of perfect husband material. He won’t even try to seduce her. How could she resist?
Todd Haynes, with Far From Heaven, found transcendence in Douglas Sirk’s rapturous soap operas, but Down With Love, for all of its broad conceptual links to Haynes’ masterpiece, gazes back on a far lighter and sillier series of movies. Many of the details are juicy and exacting: the cha-cha-through-the-Big Apple montage; the poker-faced references to beatniks, bomb protesters, Nazis in Argentina, and that weird Freudian world of ”insecurity complexes”; the transparently drawn New York skyline outside Barbara’s plastique moderne suite; the topsy-turvy plot reversals that are like an analogue for how men and women in the early ’60s were starting to switch roles. The sets and costumes are exquisite (particularly Zellweger’s hats), but the tone is camp satire, less screwball than sitcom, with too much italicized music punctuating the action. Zellweger, with her twitchy face and, by now, overly sinewy physique, seems a bit too stressed for the period; adorable as she is, she got closer to Doris Day as Bridget Jones. Even when it works, which is not all of the time, Down With Love is little more than an engaging stunt set in a mad (if not Mad) movie version of 1962, with a resonant cartoon glee poised somewhere between Far From Heaven and Airplane!
The appeal, and mellow absurdity, of the Pillow Talk genre was the way it fetishized every detail of the differences between the sexes. Women were gaining power, all right, and so the movies had to redefine masculinity by winking at it. That ethos overlaps with our own era, in which men and women, more equal (and in many ways more alike) than ever, strive to find ways to set themselves apart. In Down With Love, McGregor, speaking in his natural Scottish accent, plays Catcher as a real-world Austin Powers with straighter teeth and better clothes. It’s hilarious to see a movie’s male sex symbol define cool by the way he rolls on his spandex stay-up socks, and McGregor, who has so much heart that he puts feeling into his jokes, is wonderfully charming as this toxic bachelor with no idea that his ways are on the way out. Catcher’s quibbling friendship with his neurotic boss, Peter McMannus (David Hyde Pierce), the movie’s version of a Tony Randall fussbudget, provides an amusing subtext of homophobic anxiety — the joke being, of course, that the subtext overwhelms the text.
Down With Love is a movie in which every ”nuance” is actually a poke in the ribs, but the characters have no clue, even when they’re poking themselves. The film has a lot of fun goofing on the split-screen dialogues from Pillow Talk, especially during an exercise duet with Catcher and Barbara. For all its felicities, though, Down With Love could have used more of the shimmering elegance of the Day-Hudson comedies. Those movies had a true sparkle. This one’s a likable piece of costume jewelry.