Down With Love (2003) is charming and delightful, two of my favorite qualities in a romantic comedy. Some critics have dismissed this film as a failed parody of the light and soapy Doris Day/Rock Hudson vehicles from the late fifties and early sixties. I think Down With Love succeeds – not only as a parody, but also as a romantic comedy on its own. One true test of parody is that the work should be able to stand alone as an entertaining piece EVEN IF YOU HAVE NEVER SEEN THE OBJECT OF THE PARODY. This is a useful rule of thumb. The “Fistful of Yen” sequence in Kentucky Fried Movie is still funny, even if one has never seen a Bruce Lee film. (Of course, if one is familiar with martial arts movies, the sequence is even funnier.) Take the Money and Run, Blazing Saddles, and Shaun of the Dead all still work, even if audiences have never seen a true-crime documentary, a Western, or a zombie movie. Down With Love passes this test (but, regrettably, has no zombies.)
The purpose of a romantic comedy is to introduce the audience to two attractive people who the audience hopes will fall in love. It helps if the actors playing these two attractive people have “good chemistry,” a quality that is hard to define. The romantic comedy then engineers Obstacles To Romance, as many as the running time will allow, keeping the two attractive people separated and guaranteeing that they will not fall in love. Of course, love triumphs. I would say that using the above hasty definition, Down With Love succeeds as one of the best romantic comedies of the last decade. We laugh at the many convolutions of the plot and uses of disguise; we are honestly happy when the two leads wind up in each other’s arms. It is honestly sweet.
THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Journalist Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor) is insufferably handsome; he seduces and abandons women at an alarming rate. Small-town girl Barbara Novak (Renee Zellweger) comes to the big city intending to publish a controversial book, Down With Love, in which she advocates that women should start using men the way that men have historically used women. The book is published and becomes a pop culture phenomenon. Meanwhile, Catcher’s best friend, Peter MacManus (David Hyde Pierce) meets Barbara’s editor, Vikki Hiller (Sarah Paulson) and the two begin a romance. Pretending to be astronaut Zip Martin, Catcher plans to seduce Barbara to prove that her book is a sham. He gets more than he bargained for.
This film has the distinction of featuring many actors I actively dislike, but somehow for the delightful duration of Down With Love my dislike is decidedly deactivated. (Damn.) Renee Zellweger (who I usually refer to as Ol’ Squinty) really gets into the spirit of the thing and comes across as bubbly and cute. She also absolutely nails the tour-de-force monologue she is handed in the film’s third act (more on that later.) Ewan McGregor’s performance makes me wonder why he has not been featured in more comedies. Sarah Paulson had a strike against her as I sat down to watch this because I hated her so much on the execrable Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip — she played a character that everyone on the show described as a catch and a stitch, though I thought she was a scold and a bitch (see what I did there?) She is very good here, channeling a Rosalind Russell vibe to play the second lead. David Hyde Pierce is hilarious (as he is in Wet Hot American Summer) playing the thankless leading man’s best friend part, the kind of part Tony Randall always used to play. Tony Randall shows up too, playing the elderly head of a publishing house, perhaps as a tip of the hat to the types of movies this film is affectionately sending up.
THE ART DIRECTION AND COSTUMES: Down With Love is uncanny in its recreation of the garish fake plastic world of early sixties romantic comedies. All of the production designers seem to have done their work here with a subtle wink because the sets and costumes are retro and stylized to the hilt, but never cartoony. Highlights include Zellweger’s outrageous wardrobe and MacGregor’s fancy, high-tech bachelor pad.
MUSICAL MAYBE? Between the film’s frothiness and color scheme, it comes across as a musical without any musical numbers (actually there is one during the end credits). This has made me think that some smart producer somewhere could make a fortune turning Down With Love into a full-blown Broadway musical. It even fits the criterion that all Broadway musicals (save Book of Mormon) have to be based on movies now.
THE SPOILER: I mentioned a little earlier the epic monologue that Zellweger delivers near the film’s conclusion. Here it is in all of its zany glory. This is the stuff that farces are made of — exactly the type of thing that was missing from the miserable Just Go With It.
“And I didn’t fall in love with Zip Martin. I fell in love with Catcher Block. That was a year ago, when for three and a half weeks I worked as your secretary. I don’t expect you to remember me. I wasn't a blond then. But you did ask me out. And it broke my heart to say ‘no,’ but I loved you too much. I couldn't bear to become just another notch in your bedpost. With your dating habits, I knew that even if I was lucky enough to get a regular spot on your rotating schedule... I would never have your undivided attention long enough for you to fall in love with me. I knew I had to do something to set myself apart.
I knew I had to quit my job as your secretary and write an international bestseller controversial enough to get the attention of a New York publisher as well as KNOW magazine but insignificant enough that as long as I went unseen, KNOW magazine’s star journalist would refuse to do a cover story about it. I knew that every time we were supposed to meet, you would get distracted by one of your many girlfriends and stand me up, and this would give me a reason to fight with you over the phone and declare that I wouldn’t meet with you for a hundred years. And then all I would have to do was be patient and wait the two or three weeks it would take for everyone in the world to buy a copy of my best-seller… and then I would begin to get the publicity I would need for you to 1) see what I look like and 2) see me denounce you in public as the worst kind of man. I knew that this would make you want to get even by writing one of your exposés.
And in order to do that, you would have to go undercover, assume a false identity and pretend to be the kind of man who would make the kind of girl I was pretending to be fall in love. And I knew that since I was pretending to be a girl who would have sex on the first date, you would have to pretend to be a man who wouldn’t have sex for several dates. And in doing so, we would go out on lots of dates to all the best places and all the hit shows until finally, one night, you would take me back to your place — that you were pretending was someone else’s — in order to get the evidence you needed to write your exposé by seducing me until I said, ‘I love you.’ But saying ‘I love you’ was also my plan.
I just wanted to tell you the truth so that when you heard me say, ‘I love you’ you would know that I knew who you were, and you would know who I was. Then you, the great Catcher Block, would know that you had been beaten at your own game... by me, Nancy Brown, your former secretary. And I would have, once and for all, set myself apart from all the other girls you've known, all those other girls that you never really cared about, by making myself someone like the one person you really love and admire above all others: you. Then, when you realized that you had finally met your match, I would have at last gained the respect that would make you want to marry me first and seduce me later.”
Wow. Dig that crazy dialogue, baby. “Pretend to be the kind of man who would make the kind of girl I was pretending to be fall in love.” In the sometimes goopy and obnoxious Land of the Romantic Comedy, it just does not get any better than that.