Set in the Big Apple during that cultural apex between the election and assassination of President Kennedy, Renee Zellweger stars as Barbara Novak, who has come to New York from a small town in Maine after selling her feminist tome Down With Love to a major publishing firm. Barbara’s editor, the feisty Vikki Hiller (Sarah Paulson), is determined to make the book the hot commodity she knows it can be, and books an interview between her client and Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor), a journalist at men’s magazine Know who is as famous for being a man about town as he is a writer. Block, finding the whole idea of Novak and her book, which calls for women to choose a career over love and substitute chocolate for sex, insulting, does not want to interview what he believes to be some spinster, but finally agrees to after much chiding from his best friend and editor, Peter McManus (David Hyde-Pierce), who is not so secretly in love with Vikki. However, Catcher skips out on the first interview with Barbara when a comely flight attendant catches his eyes, phoning in some lame apology to Ms. Novak moments after she arrives at their rendezvous point. After several such missed opportunities, Novak tells Block where he can stick his apologies, prompting Vikki to get Barbara’s book notice in other fashions. A chance opportunity to have Judy Garland perform a song “written about the book” on the Ed Sullivan show (in actuality, a song from the 1930s which Ms. Garland did indeed perform on Sullivan’s show) helps skyrocket the book to number one around the world, empowering women from London and Paris to Moscow and Beijing. Novak, an instant celebrity, uses one appearance on a famous game show to warn women about the likes of Catcher Block, prompting him to come up with a scheme to write an expose about her by getting Novak to fall in love with him, thereby proving her book and herself to be a fraud.
The fun in the film not only comes from watching Block concoct an incredible scheme to get Novak to fall in love with him, but how their sexual tug of war plays out with the other characters and how the film works with the conventions of cinematic storytelling in the timeframe it is set in. From the opening Fox logo and Cinemascope presentation card, which look like they once were from a 1960s Technicolor film before years of neglect faded and blurred the negative, to the imaginative use of the split screen process, albeit in ways Doris Day and Rock Hudson could never be seen, director Peyton Reed has made sure his second feature not only pulls him away from the enjoyable but pat pabulum that was his debut, “Bring It On,” and sets him as a major talent that will have a career for many years to come. What he has achieved on the film’s budget, rumored to be a mere $35 million, should be studied by wannabe filmmakers as what can be achieved by having a vision instead of an unlimited amount of money to spend.
On a technical level, “Down With Love” is a gorgeous looking film. Production Designer Andrew Laws, along with Art Director Martin Whist and Set Decorator Don Diers, built all fifty five sets for the film from scratch, from Catcher’s swinging bachelor pad to the Know offices and even a shoeshine stand at Grand Central Station, along with every piece of “authentic” period furniture. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (shooter of “Fight Club” and son of famed D.P. Jordan Cronenweth) works wonders with his widescreen palette, purposely aping many of the camera shots of the day, using the same stock footage over and over to great effect. The costumes by Daniel Orlandi are spot on perfect, as is the jazzy score by Marc Shaiman.
Of the performances, Ewan McGregor comes out as best in show, showing an incredible knack for playing the romantic comedy lead which should solidify his placement amongst the A list in Hollywood. Second place would go to David Hyde-Pierce, who plays a mild variant of his “Fraiser” character, which works well within the context of this film. Sarah Paulson, whose work has previously been limited to minor roles in big films like “What Women Want” and major roles in one season series like “American Gothic,” takes full advantage of her second female lead role, outshining her better known co-star Zellweger. If there are any faults in “Down With Love,” it is with its main star. Zellweger seems to have two looks, the pout and the dour, even in the scenes where her character is supposed to be full of joy. In her biggest scene, the second act twist that sets the remainder of the film in motion, she barrels through what were likely two or three pages of dialogue in the screenplay without much expression. It is the writing that makes the scene, not the performance.
Despite the lackluster performance of Ms. Zellweger’s, I still would recommend “Down With Love” to all. I give the film an A- for effort and an A for execution.Rating: A