Saturday, April 19, 2014

Down With Love


It was so nice to wake up in my own bed this morning, safe from my recent travails in Iraq. I'll have to admit that the pink satin sheets were a bit musty from disuse and the gilded chains that suspend the carved swan white bed frame had some rust spots. I do have to speak to my household staff. I cannot allow standards to slip just because my busy career causes me to be absent from time to time.

Patrick Flanagan, my practically perfect pussycat, had prepared a surprise for my homecoming. Manuel, my new gardener, had transplanted a large oak tree in the middle of the drive and tied an enormous yellow ribbon around it in a festive bow. Patrick, not satisfied with the effect, used tooth and claw to shred 'Welcome Home MNM' into the fabric in a jacquard design. I was so touched. Of course, I did find a letter from the Los Angeles County Board of Preservation in this morning's mail. Apparently Manuel took the oak tree from some historic grove and left a rather unsightly pit in its stead. It's just so hard to get good help these days.

Feeling rested and refreshed, I decided the time was right for a good old fashioned romantic comedy so I headed down to Westwood to check out the matinee offerings. The most promising seemed to be the new retro-sex comedy, Down With Love with my beloved Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger. Down With Love, with its title and title song taken from an old Harold Arlen tune, is a loving recreation of New York City in the Kennedy era where the men wore gray flannels and smoked pipes, the women wore pillbox hats and A-line dresses, and mambo music emenated from all the hi-fis in town. The film is not so much an homage to the Doris Day/Rock Hudson sex comedies of the era as much as it's an arch imitation. Unfortunately, society has moved on a bit over the last forty years and the film, while well made, has little appeal.

Renee Zellweger plays Barbara Nowak, a young writer who comes to New York to sell her new book, 'Down With Love', a manifesto to women to enter the workplace and take control of their lives, especially by aping the male habit of sex without love. She's helped along by her editor, Vickie Hiller (Sarah Paulson), an ambitious career gal with an incredible nicotine addiction and amazing wardrobe. Meanwhile, star magazine reporter Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor), who works for an Esquiresque magazine, is determined to expose the supposedly liberated Barbara as an old fashioned girl, by shedding his James Bond playboy image for that of a Howdy-Doody astronaut. His boss, Peter MacMannus (David Hyde Pierce), in the patented Tony Randall role, fusses about with chocolate souffles and socks with garters, trying to pick up a few pointers on women. The battle of the sexes wages through various reversals until the inevitable conclusion is reached.

The visual look of the film is smart and stylish. Costumer Daniel Orlandi and set decorator Don Diers pull out all the stops to recreate a vanished Manhattan of cocktail bars, beatnik parties and jet age furniture. The design is so over the top and owes so much to the Hollywood version of the period, rather than the reality of the period, that it occasionally dwarfs the performers and story. An early sequence, in which Barbara is repeatedly stood up by Catcher for a series of stewardesses, showcases so many eye popping ensembles that it's hard to concentrate on anything else.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film does not live up to the art direction. Director Reed, working from a script by Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake, miscalculates badly in terms of tone and style. The sex comedies of the early sixties were designed for a society where sexual issues, long repressed, were exploding into pop culture and public discourse. The Hays code was falling and audiences were demanding a more realistic representation of relationships between men and women. The sex comedies that came out began to hint more frankly at the physical side of love, homosexuality and gender roles. The rigid gender roles of the 40s and 50s were already falling by the wayside and were stereotypical, even then. That's what made much of the material funny to the audiences of the day. The musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, for instance, which opened in 1961 to great acclaim and a Pulitzer, was understood as satire and not reality. Director Reed, who was in utero when Kennedy was assassinated, doesn't recognize how much satire was in his source material. His vision of the early 60s is the media driven one of those films and thus, he's attempting to satirize satire - a losing proposition.

While there is ample use of the conventions of the time such as the montage, the double entendre and the split-screen, Reed often takes them too far and makes the ultimate result unpalatable. One split-screen sequence, for instance, becomes a complete sexual coupling but it's not funny, it's just repugnant as it's at odds with the characters, story and style that he's set. He's not helped by the casting of the leads. Zellweger and McGregor, both fine performers, just aren't right for the central roles and don't have the effortless chemistry that made the Rock/Doris films work. Doris Day pulled off those parts as she was in her forties when she made those films and had obviously been around the block a few times. Zellweger just seems too young and fresh. Someone like Michelle Pfeiffer might have been a better choice. Rock Hudson worked because of his immense physical presence that McGregor just doesn't have. The part calls out for someone more like Brendan Fraser. Because of this, the supporting leads steal the show. Both Paulson and Hyde Pierce are marvelous and steal every scene and line they can.

The ultimate result is a film that seems to have been made for an audience that moved on some four decades ago. There's a way to bring this formula back to life, but this isn't it. The only time it truly sparks is during the end credits when McGregor and Zellweger sing and dance a riotous production number that looks like it was stolen from an early 60s variety show. Maybe if they'd made the whole thing a musical...

Pink jacket. Pink book jacket. Camelot viewing. Beatnik party. Gratuitous penis double entendres. Gratuitous Tony Randall. Large telescope. Automatic wet bar. Multiple episodes of chocolate eating. Gratuitous gay art director. Twist dancing.

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