“The place? New York City. The time? Now: 1962. And there’s no time or place like it.”
Down With Love, Peyton Reed’s 2003 technicolor pastiche of the 1960s battle-of-the-sexes rom-com, begins with the above winking acknowledgement, which makes clear two things: its own artificiality and a recognition that, while there are ways in which the world has changed since 1962, there are just as many ways that it’s stayed exactly the same. Half-Pillow Talk, half-Sex and the Single Girl, Down With Love stars Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor as Doris Day/Rock Hudson analogs, re-animating the chaste heroine and debonair charmer types the pair so often traded in. Zellweger plays the unwillingly sexless Barbara Novak, a feminist writer whose philosophy of spurning love and marriage for casual sex as a means of female empowerment lands her as the only woman in New York who can’t practice what she preaches, while McGregor plays the “ladies’ man, man’s man, man about town” Catcher Block, a charming playboy journalist seeking to ruin Novak and end the gender wars once and for all.
Setting up a convoluted game of seduction, resistance, and subterfuge, Down With Love draws out a thoroughly modern neurosis in its period trappings, directing attention to the artifice inherent in every facet of its existence and the overlapping pretenses the characters find themselves upholding. While the film itself maintains a tight hold on its own ideas, even in the blur of Reed’s dynamic direction and breakneck pacing, its characters are lost in their own heterosexual anxieties. Every word, every date, every shenanigan is a strategic maneuver, with the emotional dynamics of heterosexuality acting as both the prize of the game and the board on which the game is played. The four leads — including Sarah Paulson as Vikki, Barbara’s editor, and David Hyde Pierce as Peter, Catcher’s boss and best friend — represent a range of responses to the game of love, but at their core, all are characterized by anxiety — the fear of surrendering to “love” (read: marriage), of not finding anyone to surrender to, and crucially, of losing whatever power they can eke out in such a system. Down With Love takes the position that for all the light-hearted fun and antics of its inspirations, the bedrock of the genre is the pretenses characters adopt out of a need to retain some sense of control over the games they play with one another. Even the film’s title offers a double-entendre, with a potential double meaning (being against love versus being “down” with love) that encapsulates perfectly the philosophical tightrope that the film walks.
Down With Love embraces deception as a means of approaching both style and substance, with its tangled schemes mirroring the visual trickery of the camera, creating a film that achieves a neat, symmetrical balance of style and theme. It’s not just that Reed’s cohesive vision works on an intellectual level — although it certainly does, providing a genuinely insightful critique of the heterosexual nonsense of 1960s rom-coms — it’s that the end result is so deeply satisfying. For a genre that is often relegated to throwaway popcorn fare, the existence of something as thoughtful and meticulous as Down With Love, let alone how fun it all actually is, borders on the miraculous. There’s something innately gratifying about an artistic project that points all its efforts in one direction, aiming wholeheartedly at one target and deploying all its ammunition with deadly accuracy. Every single element of Down With Love, from the slightest inflection brought to a line of dialogue to the pristine sets, feels geared toward such a specific vision that, if not for its twist, the entire project could easily camouflage itself among the very peers it emulates.
All of this is perhaps why it stings so much that Down With Love is so widely unknown. The film underperformed at the box office, received no significant awards nominations, and garnered somewhat ambivalent critical responses at the time — and despite the recent emergence of something of a cult following, it still feels under-appreciated. Part of this is due to the bad luck of having to face off against The Matrix Reloaded at the box office, but perhaps the more pressing factor is a widespread skepticism of what the romantic comedy can achieve as a genre. With its much-lauded third-act twist (which we won’t spoil here) and an ending that manages to have its cake and eat it too, Down With Love never takes its eye off the ball, and instead of delivering fluffy, ultimately disposable, period-romance escapism, Reed takes all the inevitabilities and cliches of the genre and embraces them with an affection that’s just as genuine as his critique is sharp.
Part of Kicking the Canon — The Film Canon.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 20.