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Published October 3rd, 2003 | by Ed Colley

Down With Love Review

Classification: 12A Director: Peyton Reed Rating: 4/5

When the ex-editor of two of this country’s leading film magazines tells you to look out for a forthcoming movie, it makes sense to sit up and take notice. So when Emma Cochrane mentioned in an interview she gave to FM a short while ago that the two future movies she was most looking forward to were Return of the King and Down With Love, we wanted to find out more. Obviously, the third part of Peter Jackson’s cinematic behemoth needed no real research, as his trilogy has been the film event of the past couple of years. Down With Love, however, was more of a curiosity. Emma mentioned that it had great set design and that hopefully with a positive release it would ‘do well over here’. But what was this film, starring Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger, all about? Was Emma right in looking forward to it so much? And what did she mean by ‘do well over here?’ Surely it would do well everywhere?

Well, to take the last question first, after a considerable amount of research undertaken by the FM’s senior writers, it was discovered that Down With Love had not actually done too well at the US box office, only appearing in the latter half of its Top Ten for a couple of weeks. Which appeared a little odd, considering that a) the film’s leads are two of Hollywood’s hottest stars, Renee Zellweger (Bridget Jones’s Diary and Chicago) and Ewan McGregor (you can pick the films), b) supporting actors include one of America’s best-loved sitcom actors (David Hyde Pierce aka neurotic Niles from Frasier) and the talented Sarah Paulson, and c) it’s directed by Peyton Reed, the man who gave the world Bring It On (Kirsten Dunst and Elizabeth Dushku as cheerleaders – genius!). Why would a film that has ‘smash hit’ written all over it (pardon the hackneyed phrase) bomb at the box office?

Onto the set design. Again, after exhaustive research, the FM team discovered that Down With Love was in fact a romantic comedy, in the style of the Rock Hudson and Doris Day ‘sex comedies’ such as Pillow Talk. However, rather than be a reworking of an old film ‘updated’ to present day (a la You’ve Got Mail, The Italian Job and about 50% of Hollywood’s current output), Down With Love was going to be set in early sixties New York but with a modern-day sensibility. This meant split screens, enormous Day-Glo Technicolor sets, stock footage, sixties-style music and fabulous costumes. It meant Zellweger and McGregor giving hyper-real performances in the style of Hudson and Day, delivering dialogue which had its ear in the sixties and its pants in the noughties. All in all, it meant a film that, if taken at face value by an audience not quite getting the joke, would not do very well at all.

Finally, Emma’s comments had become clear. Even with its fabulous set design, perhaps US audiences hadn’t quite got what Down With Love was attempting to achieve. Perhaps UK audiences might get the joke instead. Yet a final question remained: was Down With Love actually any good in the first place?

Having seen the film, the FM team can report that the answer, happily, is yes. (Well, let’s face it, Emma Cochrane didn’t get where she is today by not knowing her films, eh?) In fact, at the risk of using misplaced superlatives, Down With Love is the best romantic comedy to hit cinema screens since When Harry Met Sally.

There are many reasons why this is the case. For starters, let’s have a look at the leads themselves. Renee Zellweger, one of those actresses who can illicit mixed emotions from an audience, is superb as Barbara Novak, a young author who hits New York City with her new book ‘Down With Love’, a pre-feminist manifesto on saying ‘no’ to love and ‘yes’ to career. True, she occasionally looks like she is sucking a lemon whilst reading a number plate without glasses, but this can be forgiven by the fact that Barbara Novak is such a loveable character, a woman who believes chocolate is a suitable substitute for sex (she won’t be getting any complaints from the women I know, that’s for sure). In the spirit of the film, Zellweger’s performance is hyper real, involving not just her eyes and her face, but her entire body. This can particularly be seen in the gloriously poised and stylised walk she puts on with her best friend and editor Vikki Hiller (Sarah Paulson) whenever they enter a room, strutting their stuff as if they were models in the swingiest fashion show in town.

Zellweger’s partner in crime, Ewan McGregor, plays Catcher “Catch” Block, journalist and ladies’ man/man’s man/man about town. Novak incurs the wrath of the caddish Catch when her book becomes a best seller and all the women of New York begin to act in a peculiar manner, strangely demanding that they not be treated as sex-objects and that they even – horror – be given equal treatment in the workplace. None of which helps Catch in his vigorously bachelorish pursuits.

As the alpha-male in the man’ world of male journalism, McGregor excels in yet another part which extends his versatility as an actor. Mixing the laid back cool of Dean Martin with the aggressive sexuality of a young Paul Newman and the cynical charm of Cary Grant, McGregor is effortless in the role of leading man, and is particularly fun playing an innocent Southern astronaut whom he ‘tricks’ an unsuspecting Novak into falling in love with, thereby unmasking her as not being a ‘Down With Love’ girl after all.

As in all rom coms, the leading guy and gal need to have a best friend, and in Down With Love these roles are undertaken by David Hyde Pierce as Catch’s neurotic and lovesick boss Peter McMannus and the object of Peter’s affections, Barbara’s feisty editor Vikki Hiller. All four leads have enormous fun with some great dialogue, which firmly places the film in the early 60’s but allows for some rather cheeky double entendres and sexual innuendo all within the context of ‘proper’ courtships

This mixture of glamour, gloss and sixties old fashioned values is also evident in Peyton Reed’s assured direction. He really does make the audience feel that they are watching a film made in the sixties, a film in which everyone has a fabulous apartment (such as Catch’s state-of-the-art bachelor pad extraordinaire) and where everyone looks fabulous every second of the day, even when they are getting ready for bed.

Most of all, Reed is successful because he imbues proceedings with a real sense of fun, inviting the audience to bring down their emotional defences and just wallow in the Day-Glo glorious nonsense of it all. Down With Love makes no pretence at being about anything, and although it has a ‘message’ at its centre, this message is such a given in today’s society as to warrant no real attention at all (oh all right then – men and women can love each other whilst giving themselves the space to be all they can be, a belief whose only detractors are retired Colonels living in deepest Sussex). Down With Love doesn’t try to be anything but what it is, a great big pavlova of a film; light, sweet and beautiful to look at.

Audiences should leave cinemas having watched Down With Love with a swing in their step and a smile on their face. It is the perfect date movie, a movie geared for the girls but that boys who are in touch with their feminine side (as all boys should be) will like just as much. The film looks and sounds great, and should be a superb antitode for the ever-darkening days of Autumn. Watch and enjoy.

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