You Know How to Whistle, Don't You?

"You know you don't have to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything, and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow." - Lauren Bacall, To Have and Have Not

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Movie review - Down with Love

Before seeing Down with Love, I e-mailed a friend: "I'm a little intimidated by the fabulousness of the outfits, so I'm wearing my cutest skirt. I fully expect to be charmed by Ewan McGregor. I may even swoon once or twice." I needn't have worried. The costumes are indeed fabulous, as were the apartment and restaurant sets. McGregor has his mojo working, and there are clever moments, especially in the first half of the film. There are many ways in which this movie could be oh, so right. But the many plot turns at the end, the many pointless sex jokes, and the continually uninspiring presence of Renee Zellweger make it nothing more than a bland, forgettable summer movie.
Peyton Reed's film, intended as an homage to Pillow Talk and the partnership of Doris Day and Rock Hudson, comes off as pastiche. Reed and writers Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake capture many visual and verbal tics of the Day/Hudson movies. The story of Barbara Novak (Zellweger), author of the emancipatory book Down with Love, and Catcher Block (McGregor), a star reporter determined to expose Novak's proto-feminism as a sham, begins with zip and dash. Novak's arrival in the big city is done at breathless speed, and the various fashion show struts, "hitting the town" sequences, and street scenes are visually and verbally clever. Most efforts to alter the film's sensibility for modern audiences fail, however. The makers' apparent belief that "old hit movie + many references to sex = new hit movie" undercut the movie's promising start and make its efforts at originality seem careless and halfhearted.
It's clear from the beginning that Reed et. al. are taking a consciously updated approach to sex roles and sexual content in the movies they're imitating. Down with Love succeeds when it reverses, then equalizes gender imbalances in the workplace. Barbara Novak's idea that women should forget about love in order to advance their careers meets with appalled stares from a boardroom full of male publishers who can't fathom the idea of women acting just like them. Catcher Block decides to expose her as just another love-hungry single woman when he finds himself unable to get dates, due to the popularity of her book. At the film's conclusion, Novak's self-made success and Block's lesson in love resolve their professional and personal dilemmas, and the two are on equal footing at last.
Regrettably, the modernizing impulse doesn't stop there; Reed also takes an updated approach to body image. McGregor and Zellweger are bantamweight versions of their predecessors. Zellweger's pencil-thin legs make her sashaying and strutting ridiculous, and McGregor, when bare-chested, looks like he's just gotten over pneumonia. A "ladies' man, man's man, man about town" shouldn't simultaneously provoke girlfriend instincts and Jewish mother instincts: "You're so dreamy... EAT!" Does Reed think Doris Day's curves and Rock Hudson's solidity pose too much of an aesthetic challenge for contemporary audiences?
The film's approach to actual sexual content is its least successful element. At first, sexual innuendo is just that: allusion delivered with a knowing wink. True, the principals actually use the word sex, but the humor relies on it still being somewhat off-limits. During a split screen phone conversation between Novak and Block, however, the tone changes. Even though the scene refers to Pillow Talk's use of the same trick, it looks inspired by Austin Powers. Zellweger and McGregor's images are manipulated into simulating various sex acts and the knowing wink becomes a leer. Reed, Ahlert, and Drake's decision to rely on tired sex jokes instead of wit and repartee cost the movie its balance, and the humor remains ham-fisted throughout.
Ewan McGregor carries off the Rock Hudson part with panache. He softens his Scottish accent so it doesn't jar, and Catcher Block comes off as suave, international, and a bit of a cad. His impersonation of an "aw, shucks" American astronaut is over the top, but never more so than the film itself. Renee Zellweger, on the other hand, never convinces you that she owns the role. She's not bad, just unremarkable. She can't carry off the implicit wink at the audience that McGregor and the supporting cast master, and the "please love me" vulnerability that worked so well for her in Nurse Betty undercuts what should be a smart, engaging, scheming character. The rest of the cast is excellent. Jeri Ryan steals all her scenes as a swinging flight attendant, as do David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Paulson as Block and Novak's editors, respectively. Pierce embodies the witty, neurotic sidekick perfectly and his scenes with Paulson are far more rewarding than the leads' intrigues.
Pacing problems make Down with Love feel plotless for the first hour and jam-packed in the final minutes. Previous hints at the movie's big revelation would have made it more believable and would have helped satisfy the requirements of both plot and audience. Ultimately, the luster of fabulous fashion, scenic sets, and a scrumptious Scot is dulled by the filmmakers' slack approach to storytelling, and the film lacks heart as a result. Instead of offering a witty modern commentary on 1950s and 1960s social conventions, Down with Love makes you long for the films those conventions produced.
Originally published May 21, 2003.


Post a Comment

<< Home