Fri, May 30, 2003
Down With Love
sparkling wit, glimmering style
Peyton Reed has very quickly joined an elite list who – no matter what subject matter or style they attempt – I know I'll enjoy it. Spielberg, Michael Crichton, They Might Be Giants; it's not a long list, but they share a certain commitment, creativity, and style that ensures they'll entertain me with whatever pursuit they deem worthy.
First, Reed took on ensemble high-school comedy with Bring It On. Stylish and peppy, this rollicking story of rival cheerleading squads emerged late into the turn-of-the-century teen-movie boom and in fact well into its backlash. The glory days of She's All That and Can't Hardly Wait had faded, and we were starting to see abysmal teen-centered movies like Down To You and Drive Me Crazy. (Anything in which Melissa Joan Hart stars as a "teenager" should be banished along with anything in which Joe Estevez "stars.") But Bring It On rose above the fray, not because it was deeply meaningful, but because it had a fresh tone and spark and it delivered an original voice in a sea of pale genre regurgitation.
This time, Reed re-creates the 1960s "bedroom comedy" (á la Rock Hudson/Doris Day) in Down With Love, starring Renée Zellweger as Barbara Novak, the feminist author of the titular book and Ewan McGregor as Catcher Block, the magazine columnist and "ladies' man/man's man/man-about-town" who wants to expose her as "just another woman," as boy-crazy as the rest. When I first heard about Down With Love I knew I loved the concept. But just like a teen movie, it could easily have missed the mark. It would be easy to rely too heavily on nostalgic sight gags and hackneyed innuendo, resulting in a pretty but ultimately unsatisfying experience. However, Reed manages to push beyond the window dressing and create something truly memorable with inspired performances (most notably from David Hyde Pierce, who has never appeared in a scene he didn't steal) and a plot that manages to reinvigorate the standard bedroom comedy/socialite storyline while remaining faithful to its basic underpinnings.
As with most things, style is the backbone. The expected tricks are there: obviously painted backdrops; rear-projected driving backgrounds; the old-style 20th Century Fox logo animation. But the pleasure is in the details. The way the skyscrapers of Manhattan outside Novak's window cast subtle shadows on the moonlit sky behind them. Or the way the overlapping visual gag that Mike Myers managed to wear thin between the end of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and the beginning of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me is humorously reinvented with a unique approach. While it's true that most of the dialogue is devoted to unsubtle innuendo, this is at worst worthy of a chuckle because of how transparently it's played (in reverence to the original movies) and at best manages to catch you off guard with a solid laugh. What's rewarding is that the film uses this as a backdrop, but jumps off from it to create a fun and twisting plot and to more subtly spoof other elements of the 1960s comedies, like their logic. Wholly implausible leaps of motivation or even time and space were just par for the course, and similar logic is woven into Down With Love to give it the same ring of absurdity and whiz-bang pace. Like when Block decides to go in disguise to trick Ms. Novak and tells the maitre d' at his favorite hangout "I'm Major Zip Martin now. Spread it around to all the maitre d's, cabbies, doormen, and theatre ushers." Henri accepts his tip and intones "Done," as if such a thing were part of his weekly routine.
It's not perfect. The wit dulls in some areas and in order to keep us guessing at whether it will invert the genre convention or stick with a happy ending, it suffers from "multiple ending syndrome." (Something Leonard Maltin always decries but I have no problem with, seeing as how I usually don't want the movie to end anyway.) But McGregor and Zellweger are radiant and – both late of recent silver screen musicals – they move through the gleaming hi-gloss world of the film beautifully and in fact get to do a song and dance number over the credits. (During which, watch for composer Marc Shaiman playing himself with a goofy manic grin on his face just like in Broadcast News and South Park.) McGregor is debonair as ever and Zellweger is crackling without losing the Dorothy Boyd girl-next-door charm. And she packs a wallop in a powerhouse monologue that rivals Jack Nicholson's in A Few Good Men for nearly running the camera magazine out of film. (I'm half-curious whether two shots weren't digitally smoothed together into her single filibuster.) And David Hyde Pierce is – as always – positively sublime.
So, go for the supersaturated colors and swelling orchestral score but stay for the smart laughs and the fun situations. They don't make movies like this any more, but it's fun to sit back for a couple of hours and imagine what it would be like if they did.