by Alexandre Paquin
One minute or so after the opening credits of Down with Love, Renée Zellweger, modern cinema's ingénue de service, arrives in New York City in the wonderful year 1962, and goes to her publisher's office. As she does, one brief frame shows a row of flags in the background, including a nice modern Canadian flag, three years before it was officially adopted to replace the old Red Ensign. This anachronism, so conspicuously displayed, effectively shattered any attempt on my behalf to suspend my disbelief, and just confirmed my old golden rule that you can't really do a 1962 film at any other time than in 1962 -- even as a parody.Because that's what Down with Love is supposed to be, I guess -- a parody of all those Rock-and-Doris movies that graced the screen in a bygone era. Unfortunately, as a parody, it's mild, so mild in fact that it would hardly qualify as a feeble pastiche. And as a romantic comedy, it's as routine as it can get, and its genre has not really gone out of fashion since 1962.
"What Paul Masson is to Champagne"
Barbara Novak (Renée Zellweger) is the author of a book on women's emancipation called Down with Love, conveniently named after a Harold Arlen-E.Y. Harburg song, but her publisher is hardly interested in promoting the book. Through her agent, played by Sarah Paulson, Novak intends to promote the book in the male magazine Know, but the magazine's star reporter and womanizer Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor), upon hearing from his effeminate boss Peter McMannus (David Hyde Pierce) that Novak is a "spinster," avoids showing up at his supposed interview with her. Later in the film, upon realizing that Barbara Novak is, well, Renée Zellweger, he decides to hit on her as the basis for an exposé.
It might be said that Down with Love sparkles with wit and sophistication, but the film is less reminiscent of Champagne than of cheap grocery-store wine, the last thing you would put next to the latest issue of The New Yorker when those important guests arrive. The bubbles are there all right, and the taste is tolerable if you haven't known better, but it tastes awful in comparison if you've been accustomed to Veuve Clicquot. Down with Love is mostly that -- a cheap wine reminiscent of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and all that ilk, but served in a Champagne bottle, a first-rate attempt to deceive the audience into thinking that the film has some sort of significance or undisputable charm because it looks different and is obviously not targeted at the usual teenage crowd.
How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, considering its aims and limitations, wasn't all that bad (although I have very little patience with Kate Hudson), and it above all never pretended to be more than it is, a crime of which Down with Love is guilty. Down with Love, in spite of the stunning production design and a deliberately fake-looking matte background of New York skyscrapers, which nicely and effectively parodies studio-bound films of the period, is a pretty and colourful shell with nothing inside.
What made Todd Haynes's Far from Heaven fascinating was its use of the late 1950's to turn the zeitgeist of the era on its head, and because it was both reverential to director Douglas Sirk and cynical in such a way that you could not watch another film from the period without noticing the political correctness of the period. It did not need to drop subtle (and not-so-subtle) historical references; Sputnik, launched within the time span of Far from Heaven, is not mentioned. In comparison, Down with Love sporadically includes historical refences such as the Cuban missile crisis and the publication of President Kennedy's Profiles in Courage; it even begins with a clear mention of the year, thinly disguised as satire, in the opening aerial shot of New York City. Once the year is so obviously stated, the other references become obsolete -- that is, unless the film believes the audience needs constant reminders that the film is still in the sixties instead of back to 2003, but those "reminders" have precisely the opposite effect.
That is what is so infuriating about Down with Love, a film which believes so much in its own cleverness that it needs to tell the audience how clever it is while it refuses to deal with its own shortcomings. Any film made today will never pass as fifties or sixties vintage, and there is no salvation in imitation for its own sake or simple-minded parody. In comparison, Far from Heaven understood this very clearly. Steven Spielberg's Catch Me if You Can, set in the mid-sixties, never attempted to replicate, say, North by Northwest or The Prize in style and dialogue, and, although it treated its subject with Spielberg's characteristically light touch, it never made fun of its own premise. At first, Down with Love seemed to take itself very lightly, too lightly perhaps, but it worked to some extent. It was light-hearted fluff, no doubt, but there was some charm in it, thanks in part to some fairly imaginative sexual innuendoes -- nothing to rival Mae West's, though. But something almost inconceivable happens halfway through the film: it starts to take its love story seriously while continuing to make fun of what surrounds it (setting and supporting characters), without realizing for a minute that one cannot work without the other, and that the dichotomy could only destroy whatever effect the film had been striving for. Ewan McGregor's very straight performance (no pun intended) does not help -- he is after all no Cary Grant --, and only Renée Zellweger seems to display just the right tone for the film.
There were opportunities to make Down with Love more significant, but most were ignored. For instance, aside from the occasional scene, the film eschews a great opportunity to discuss the dark side of the publishing industry of the sixties, but also of today. Blame it on "convergence," I guess -- no matter how much 1962 you want your film to look, you simply can't ignore today's business returns. Ironically, there is, at first, little hope for the film to find an audience because, apart from old-fashioned "star power," there is nothing to draw patrons into the theatre. Teenagers will miss the references to older films and shake their heads in disapproval at the historical setting, and those looking for an important film with something to say about cultural representation, or for a strong narrative with a good amount of sophistication, will be disappointed by its hackneyed and routine core story.Too bad, it could have been a lot better.
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originally posted: 05/28/03 10:17:19