Recently we have seen a revisitation in our society to that brief period of the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s, that societal cusp between the button-down primness of the post-war years and the wild and wooly (talking about the hippies here) revolutionary 1960’s. Lounge jazz, bachelor pads, and a nascent awakening in the equality of the sexes was the order of the day, and it is understandable why there is an allure. People took on an appreciation of finer things, they explored new avenues in culture and thinking, and the adults threw cocktail parties where people mingled and discussed issues with an urbane sensibility. Contrast this with the collegian preference for the “kegger” that now rules as our contemporary mixer. The media and Hollywood had yet to succumb to the teenage dollar in those days so plenty of entertainment was aimed at a refined and adult and demographic. “Dude, Where’s My Car?” may not have been green-lit back then.
The reason that this era was so compelling is the same reason it was so brief. It existed in a cultural eddy where we were breaking free of the self-constraints and discovering ourselves before the decade blew up and flung open the doors of rampant permissiveness. There was a desire for class and sophistication with that touch of decadence while maintaining a fair amount of innocuousness, before events caused the country to lose its innocence—in other words, to turn cynical. Cocktails were mere lubrication and not the fuel for blackout sessions to explore the grey matter. The country’s problems were believed to be resolved in smoke filled rooms from the combustion of cigars, not trashing the dean’s office while soaring off of some Tibetan North-slope trip weed. And the interaction of the sexes was a nuanced dance where the two players reveled in the rituals, contrasted with the dichotomy of the later years where you had women lifting their dress over their head as a form of greeting, or embarking on a harangue where they proclaimed that the battle of the sexes should be fought with firearms.
“Down With Love” doesn’t so much immerse itself in the movies from that period as it submerges, and does so with pure adulation. Before the lights dim a classic title screen proudly announces the film is shot in Cinescope before the period inspired credit animation sets things up in 1962. The Rock Hudson/ Doris Day films are the obvious model and director Peyton Reed dutifully employs the techniques of the day: split-screens, rear-projected traffic scenes, and even the walking montage with nightclub signage drifting about the heads of the actors as they perambulate Manhattan. The sets are dense with style and clearly made up as the sets of those films of the past had been, becoming both opulent and faux simultaneously. This goes beyond simple imitation however as the pre-fab scenery lends itself to the nature of the story, and the entire production is dedicated to the replication.
Renee Zelwegger and Ewan McGregor are at the controls and the quality of their performance may be tough to fully appraise, and some critics have carped that they fall short of duplicating Hudson and Day, but they truly are not supposed to, given that their characters are archetypes, meant to be set-dressing for the story. Zelwegger fares well enough as Barbara Novak, being appropriately pouty and lithe and sporting splashy fashions that set her character apart, but she doesn’t get to flex too much in a limiting role. She may be the star, but there is little argument that this is McGregor’s picture. He plays perfectly named gadabout Catcher Block and he wears the character as comfortably as his white tuxedo. He displays silken charm and a wink-and-a-nod attitude throughout that is always teasingly shallow, and always fun. And accuracy is given in copious amounts of Tanqueray martinis, complete with carved ivory olive picks.
The plot is a variation of the sexual themes addressed in those bygone movies, where men and women were not so much locked in battle as they were engaged in a teasing duel. Instead of the man plying his charms on the mostly chaste female the roles here are reversed and then skewed. Barbara Novak has just penned a new manifesto in a non-fiction book titled Down With Love. The book outlines how women should forego the pursuit of romance and instead focus on their careers, allowing themselves the freedom of sexual dalliances without the baggage of romantic passion. This will allow the female to enjoy all the freedoms men enjoy and then societal parity will be the result. And if needed, they can sublimate their needs with chocolate. This mindset threatens the status quo of all men, but specifically Catcher Block.
He is a writer for Know magazine and spends his time jetting around the map and submitting stories when he can, busy as he is changing women as often as he changes his shirt. Barbara and her editor need an article in Know to boost sales and Catcher and his own editor hatch a story idea of their own, to expose Barbara and her book as fraudulent, and in the process preserving their status as alpha males. Catcher continuously rain checks his meetings with Novak in order to build up desire, expecting to then pounce as she breaks down to his masculine whiles. But while he is icing her out of the interview the girls take matters upon themselves and a fortuitous break on Ed Sullivan’s show spikes book sales and Block’s interview is no longer needed.
Before long he is scrambling to break his story and Novak is the one freezing him out of contact as the book is a sensation and Catcher is threatened with obsolescence. Block then realizes she has yet to lay eyes on him, so he plays the part of a bespectacled astronaut in an effort to bend Barbara from her straightforward mindset. He woos the lady who doesn’t want to be wooed, always denying her the chance of a night together. The story unrolls as the two duck and parry with their own sexual agendas locking horns, and with their affections growing in the process. Rather than this becoming an indictment of the sexual revolution it is more of a playful tweak, as if Cosmopolitan confronted and withered the turgidity of Playboy.
The growing sexual mores of that era are infused with more modern precepts and it works because of the seminal nature of those films. The pastel pastiche of the sets seems to get their colors from a contemporary prism, and the lighthearted attitude delivers the goods. Not everything works perfectly however. McGregor and Zelwegger never really generate the chemistry that is the staple of those old sex romps, mostly due to the fact that when their characters get together they are playing different roles themselves and don’t truly blossom honestly. And the level of indulgence the production takes in the era may be off-putting to those without affection for the period as it is all here, from Catcher’s pad with the hidden martini bar to swanky nightclubs, and even beatniks. And the story delves a little too deep into the contortions of the sexual minefield as almost every entanglement is given a chance to unravel, and in fact less introspection would have streamlined things.
The good news however is that they avoided the maudlin venture of the traditional love story. The best reason that “Down With Love” works is it never tries to be a serious study but rather strives to revel in past glory. Some have tried to draw a parallel to last year’s “Far From Heaven”, another faithful recreation of a bygone period, but this is a grave miscalculation. Never trying to look into the dark corners of the past like Todd Haynes, Reed instead celebrates those things that were enjoyable before getting contaminated with the cynicism of the sixties. And best of all the film never takes itself seriously, deciding to poke fun at an institution it affectionately respects, and doing so with a knowing wink. It works, and the humor is evident in both the storyline and the attention to detail.