Dir: Peyton Reed. US. 2003. 96mins
Designed as an affectionate send-up of the Doris Day-Rock Hudson romantic comedies of the early 1960s, the campy and colorful Down With Love a cinematic souffle that never fully rises. Fox is boldly opening the film in the US on May 16, as counter-programming to The Matrix Reloaded, and it will probably take all of Renee Zellweger's post-Chicago star power to draw a younger, predominantly female audience from that surefire blockbuster. Outside the US, Zellweger's co-star Ewan McGregor will add to the film's hip appeal - indeed, Down With Love's style of kitschy pastiche may well work best in the international marketplace. The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
Like last year's Far From Heaven, the film adopts the techniques and look - here elaborate sets, painted backdrops and vibrant colour scheme - of its 40-year-old movie models. But whereas Far From Heaven used its Sirkian style to dramatic effect, Down With Love is firmly tongue in cheek.
Zellweger's Barbara Novak arrives in swinging 1962 New York as the supposedly unknown author of a pre-feminist manifesto on saying 'no' to love and 'yes' to career, empowerment and sex. When the book becomes a best seller, Barbara attracts the attention of ace men's magazine journalist Catcher Block (McGregor), who becomes determined to cut the battle-of-the-sexes sensation down to size. Aided by their respective editors - played by Frasier's Pierce and Paulson from What Women Want - Catcher and Barbara spar and, eventually and inevitably, fall in love.
Director Peyton Reed, who previously made surprise 2000 hit Bring It On, describes the script, by theatre and TV writers Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake, as being "like a musical without the music." It is just how they stage the action: with carefully choreographed set pieces and performers who practically dance through their scenes. Though the only real musical number comes during the closing credits, the soundtrack makes use of songs from Frank Sinatra and the like, and and the snappy lounge jazz score by Marc Shaiman (South Park - Bigger, Longer And Uncut) often gives rhythm to the dialogue and accentuates punchlines.
Zellweger and McGregor each display a physical grace and sense of timing that serve the material, and Reed's musical approach, well. Zellweger adds a contemporary note to her Doris Day-inspired part and McGregor plays his Rock Hudson role with Sean Connery roguishness. Both actors look great in their stylised high-fashion costumes - true to 1960s movie mores, Zellweger is always respectably covered while the McGregor gets several bath-towel scenes - amid the film's retro sets.
Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (One Hour Photo) ensures it all adds up to a very attractive package - but one that take up all film's energy and attention, leaving Down With Love short of genuinely funny or genuinely romantic moments. The light comedy of the first hour is never as much fun as it should be, with the script falling back on mildly amusing sexual innuendo and saucy Austin Powers-style pantomime instead of witty one-liners. In its more dramatic last half-hour, when Catcher struggles to convince Barbara that he has reformed, the film tries to reach some contemporary post-feminist relevance - but what that is remains unclear.
Prod cos: Fox 2000 Pictures, Regency Enterprises, Jinks/Cohen Company
US dist: 20th Century Fox
Exec prods: Paddy Cullen, Arnon Milchan
Prods: Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks
Scr: Eve Ahlert, Dennis Drake
Cinematography: Jeff Cronenweth
Prod des: Andrew Laws
Ed: Larry Bock
Costume des: Daniel Orlandi
Music: Marc Shaiman
Main cast: Renee Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, Sarah Paulson, David Hyde Pierce, Rachel Dratch , Jack Plotnick, Tony Randall