A few weeks ago I joked about resisting the urge to rush out and buy a copy of Down With Love (2003) after watching Leatherheads… and ever since then, copies of the darn thing have been appearing in every second-hand shop and charity shop I walk into… so, inevitably, the lure of spending a few more hours admiring Renée Zellweger’s lips proved too hard to resist!
For those who don’t know, DWL is a pastiche of the Doris Day and Rock Hudson “sex comedies” of the early 1960s, which painstakingly recreates the eye-popping aesthetic of that era, from the opening animated credits, to the costumes, sets and backdrops, though to the split-screen wipes, rear-projection and montage effects. The story follows ‘Barbara Novak’ (Zellweger), a proto-feminist author who’s just arrived in New York City to witness the launch of her eponymous self-help manual, which encourages women to cast off the shackles of romantic love, and learn to sublimate their sex-drive with chocolate, so they have more time and energy to devote to climbing the career ladder. When she publicly singles out rakish writer ‘Catcher Block’ (Ewan McGregor) as an example of “The Worst Kind of Man”, he schemes to expose her as a fraud by posing as an upstanding, all-American astronaut, and fooling her into falling in love with him. Meanwhile, Catcher’s nebbish boss, ‘Peter McMannus’ (David Hyde Pierce), takes a shine to Novak’s chain-smoking editor, ‘Vicky Hiller’ (Sarah Paulson), and attempts to seduce her by imitating the smooth moves of his more macho friend. Needless to say, comical confusion ensues!
Overall, I thought this movie was a lot of fun. I’ve never found McGregor particularly funny or endearing, but I understand that’s a subjective thing, and the rest of the cast are fantastic… particularly Hyde Pierce, who seems born to play this sort of stylised farce (not much of a stretch after Frasier, perhaps, but you can’t blame a guy for sticking to his strengths). The most admirable thing about the movie, imho, is that while the film-makers have worked very hard to mimic the look and sound of the early-Sixties, they resolve the central conflict in a far more modern and feminist-friendly way than might have been the case back in the day. Granted, the denouement (and the reveal of Novak’s true agenda) felt a little twisty and convoluted, but I can easily forgive that because the moral of the story is such a positive and progressive one (relative to most rom-coms, I mean). Novak makes for a very admirable, endearing heroine, and Zellweger is totally adorable in the role… although I was a little worried that she might throw her back out with the exaggerated sashay she’d adopted. I have to admit I didn’t recognise Paulson here, and was surprised to learn that she’d also played ‘Dr. Ellen Dolan’ in The Spirit movie, and the ghosty ‘Merlyn Temple’ in American Gothic… so she’s obviously pretty versatile, and clearly has a knack for comedy. Fun fact: Since filming this movie, both Paulson and Hyde Pierce have come out as gay! Coincidence… or CONSPIRACY???
Before setting his sights on Novak, Block was conducting concurrent affairs with a series of exotic European stewardesses… the most prominent of whom is a “Brit” named ‘Gwendolyn’, played by Jeri Ryan. Ryan’s probably best known for portraying the shapely cyborg ‘Seven of Nine’ on Star Trek: Voyager, yet somehow they’ve managed to make her look even more “alien” here, with garish make-up and a repulsive plastic “swirl” of a hair-style. Her colleagues/rivals are a Frenchy named ‘Yvette’, played by Ivana Milicevic (of Just Like Heaven fame), and a Swede named ‘Elkie’, played by Melissa George. For some reason (most likely stupidity) I still think of George as “that girl from Home and Away”, even though it’s been well over ten years since she left the Aussie soap, and she’s appeared in a number of American movies since then, such as 30 Days of Night, Mulholland Drive and Sugar & Spice. Apparently she was also cast as ‘Susan’ in the original American pilot of Coupling!
Who else? Well, Rachel Dratch, of 30 Rock fame, plays Hiller’s frumpy secretary ‘Gladys’, an early convert to Novak’s cause. Laura Kightlinger, of Will & Grace fame, has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as the ‘Receptionist’ at McMannus Enterprises (I only spotted her when I specifically went back to look for her). Block’s personal secretary ‘Sally’ is played by Dorie Barton… who doesn’t get much to do beyond reacting in shock to an overheard conversation rife with double entendre, but she’s very funny at it all the same. Apparently she had a starring role in a late-90s sitcom called Stark Raving Mad, alongside Tony Shalhoub and Neil Patrick Harris… but that was cancelled after a single season, and she’s been stuck in minor roles ever since. Poor thing doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page to call her own! I can’t help wondering if her uncanny resemblance to Reese Witherspoon has held her back a bit…? ‘Mrs. Litzer’, the wife of Novak’s dry cleaner, seen several times throughout the movie, is played by Florence Stanley… who is probably best known for playing ‘Judge Margaret Wilbur’, the grumpy matriarch who set the whole story in motion on My Two Dads, and appeared regularly throughout the show’s run (she even directed a couple of episodes!). Stanley also made guest appearances on The Golden Girls, Mad About You, Malcolm in the Middle, Dharma & Greg, Cybill, and Family Guy. Sadly this proved to be her last filmed appearance, as she died the same year this movie was released.
Fun-ish fact: According to a note on the back of the DVD cover, the movie itself was rated “12” in the UK, but the DVD is rated “15” simply because of the Blooper Reel! Seems odd to include a frivolous bonus feature that bumps your movie up into a higher age category… but then I doubt many parents are worried about their kids watching a frothy throwback rom-com like this one!