To be fair it isn't the film's premise which leaves that bad taste in your mouth--the vintage-y yarn is actually kind of fun. Fresh-faced Barbara Novak (Renee Zellweger) hits 1962 New York by storm preaching a pre-feminist mantra with her hot bestseller Down With Love. The book tells women they don't need love and marriage to be complete. They can eat all the chocolate they want have fabulous careers and yes even have meaningless sex--just like a man. So there! Barbara's book's popularity undoubtedly causes quite a panic with the male persuasion especially with ace journalist and "ladies' man/man's man/man about town" Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor) who abruptly finds himself lady-less. He makes it his prime directive to expose Ms. Novak as a fraud by sweeping her right off her feet until she professes her undying love so he goes undercover as an astronaut named Zip Martin who believes in long courtships and gentlemanly behavior. Running interference is Catcher's editor the lovesick Peter McMannus (David Hyde Pierce) and Barbara's editor the tough-yet-vulnerable Vikki Hiller (Sarah Paulson) who of course also seem destined for one another. Will Catcher's elaborate ruse work and prove Barbara is really not a "down with love" girl? Or will Barbara find out who Catch really is and turn the tables on him catching him in his own sticky web? Ah the course to true love is never smooth.
Where are Doris Day and Rock Hudson when you need them? Zellweger and McGregor don't even come close to the vivacious and easy-going chemistry between Day and Hudson in their '60s films Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back. Instead the performances by the two leads seem forced particularly by Zellweger. Honestly is it me or is the actress turning into a life-sized blonde-headed kewpie doll complete with puckered lips squinty eyes and high breathy voice? With Chicago and now Down With Love it's a little hard remembering that sweet unassuming "You-had-me-at-hello" girl in Jerry Maguire. McGregor fairs a bit better. Even as silly as the actor allows himself to get in this movie there are times when genuine emotions cross his face. When he tells the vapid Barbara he loves her you believe it. It's as if in that moment McGregor forgets he is in this really dumb movie and decides to do a little acting. In the supporting roles Paulson who wears the most appalling hats is too hard and bitter as Vikki. If the actress is trying to be like Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday she is way off the mark. Hyde Pierce is the only bright spot in the movie. His quippy nervous McMannus certainly measures up to the role immortalized by Tony Randall in the Day/Hudson films (who also makes a hysterical cameo as the owner of the book publishing company).
Down With Love wants to be this fun retro movie. Director Peyton Reed (Bring It On) sets the film up like a musical with lots of big staged sets elaborate costumes while the action is all done tongue in cheek. One wonders why didn't he just make it a musical. He had two of Hollywood's hottest new musical stars right there (actually if you stay until the end of the credits you do get one little number). No matter really because in the end Down just comes off as a wannabe without anything new to add. I say down with trying to remake stylized films from a whole different era. It's admirable to want to hark back to old times when sex on screen was a subtly racy phone call but seriously it just doesn't translate to modern times--and more importantly there really isn't a reason to repeat the past. If you want to experience nostalgia rent Pillow Talk. Movies like Down and last year's Far From Heaven an ode to the 1950s Douglas Sirk films just doesn't seem to fit in with today's more savvy moviegoing tastes.