Resurrecting the sugar-coated sex farces of the late 1950s and ’60s that paired Doris Day and Rock Hudson, “Down With Love” walks an unsteady tightrope between homage, parody and glibly condescending mockery. Stars Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor are too knowingly nudge-wink in their performances, too much contrived constructs to become real characters, let alone fuel the romantic comedy engine and make an audience care much whether they end up together. Premiering as the Tribeca Film Festival opener before going out May 16 as counterprogramming to “The Matrix Reloaded,” this elaborate eye candy should post initially solid numbers for Fox thanks to its kitschy appeal and name leads but is not nearly fun enough to win hearts for the long haul.
Director Peyton Reed’s high school cheerleader comedy “Bring It On” was fresh, disarming and snappily paced, three of the many things his visually dynamic but belabored second feature is not. The pic also represents a disappointing followup from producing team Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks after “American Beauty.”
While Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven” revisited a similarly outmoded genre — the emotional melodrama — it did so with profound respect for the original model, not just superficial mimicry, superiority and retro-chic accessories; and with the purpose of subverting that genre to examine issues that would have struggled to emerge from the subtext at the time. “Down With Love” has no such raison d’etre.
The script by first-time screenwriters Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake purports to put a contemporary spin on the sex farce by updating its take on women’s empowerment and sexuality. But despite rerouting the couple’s path to inevitable union and giving the Zellweger character a much more manipulative hand in the outcome than she might have had in Day’s day, the story has no real edge. While the wholesomeness and lack of cynicism that reigned when the Day-Hudson vehicles were produced made them seem witty and sophisticated at the time — and still makes them entertaining TV rerun fodder — this toothless confection seems merely a facile spoof with a very modest laugh quotient.
Setting the scene with a whimsical voiceover that places the action in bustling New York City, 1962, story opens with the arrival in town of cute but feisty author Barbara Novak (Zellweger) to meet her chain-smoking editor Vicki Hiller (Sarah Paulson), before publication of Barbara’s incendiary study of sexual politics, “Down With Love.” The book urges women to partake in sex but swear off romance, thus freeing their minds and enabling them to excel and achieve equality in the workplace.
Attempting to secure publicity for the tome and kickstart a romance with fastidious upscale men’s magazine editor Peter McMannus (David Hyde Pierce), Vicki sets up a cover profile on Barbara with the star reporter of the mag, Catcher Block (McGregor). But Catcher is too busy pleasuring a trio of flight attendants to make the appointed interviews, placing him at the top of Barbara’s hate list.
A plug on “The Ed Sullivan Show” (with Judy Garland singing the Harold Arlen-penned “Down With Love”) makes the book first a nationwide then an international sensation, galvanizing women with pre-feminist spirit, and — when the author denounces him publicly as a prime example of sexist arrogance — crippling Catcher’s love life. He determines to get even by making Barbara betray her anti-man credo and fall in love with him. When she refuses an interview, he assumes the guise of a golly-gee Southern astronaut, placing himself in her path as clueless sexual prey.
True to the original model, no one actually has sex here, but the script trowels on the innuendo. Results are occasionally amusing, though one high-concept set-piece involving unwittingly compromising couplings during a split-screen phone conversation falls flat.
In the performances too, less is often more. While Zellweger and McGregor are constantly mugging in a tiresomely self-aware way, both Paulson and Pierce appear to be trying less hard than the leads, their sitcom experience perhaps lending a certain ease in this semi-stylized register. Pierce especially scores some of the funnier moments in what would originally have been the Tony Randall role, but the gay subtext that colored the love him/loathe him relationship of this character with Hudson’s is unnecessarily spelled out and then negated here. Randall himself appears briefly as Barbara’s publisher.
Vividly shot by Jeff Cronenweth entirely on soundstages and backlots in saturated pastels, using process shots, back projection, stock footage and painted backdrops, as well as between-scene wipes, split-screen and cheesy nightlife montages, the film offers plenty of visual treats. But these pale once the novelty fades a reel or two into action.
Production designer Andrew Laws has created amusing variations on supper clubs, swanky ’60s apartments in Day-Glo colors and swinging bachelor pads, but these are so overdecorated they look like retro-styled hipster hangouts from now rather than authentic period settings.
Daniel Orlandi’s costumes are witty but similarly distracting, adding to a general feeling that, as was not the case in “Catch Me if You Can,” the style conceit overwhelms plot and characters.
Marc Shaiman’s playful ’60s-flavored score works overtime, but despite the frenetic straining of much of the action, a certain sluggishness takes hold once the limitations of the material become apparent. Zellweger and McGregor duet on the Shaiman-composed song “Here’s to Love,” but end credits where this appears were missing from the print press-screened in New York.