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Category:    Home > Reviews > Comedy > Down With Love (Fox DVD)

Down With Love


Picture: B-     Sound: B     Extras: B     Film: B+



When Down With Love (2003) was announced as Renee Zellweger’s next project after the impressive Chicago (2002), it first sounded like another Musical and the marketing did confuse some people into thinking that.  She even sings once, but the film is meant as a tribute to the romantic comedies of the 1960s populated by the usual stars of the cycle, like Rock Hudson, Sandra Dee, Tony Randall, Doris Day, James Garner, Thelma Ritter, Edie Adams, Paul Lynde, Paula Prentiss (before her cycle of Thrillers), and other great comic character actors of the time.


Actually, it goes much farther than that and is a strongly surprising comedy that turns those films on their head, keeping the style and shtick of those old film, but being far from as neutered.  Director Peyton Reed had previously scored commercially with Bring It On, but whatever the strengths of that film, nothing could have prepared us for this gut-buster.  Eve Ahlert & Dennis Drake deliver a knowing screenplay that smuggles its meanings so obviously, that you will understand the older films much better upon future viewings.


They have covered everything and have an exceptional grasp of what was really going on in those older films.  They have a real love of what the legacy really was.  This extends to everyone else who worked on the film, including the cast and director.


Barbara Novak (Zellweger) has written a book that shares the title of this film.  It is a guide on how to be liberated from men and be a feminist.  The all-male publisher thinks nothing of it, but her female publishing ally (a hilarious Sarah Paulson) believes otherwise and pushes for the book.  She convinces Barbara that the rich and powerful Catcher Block (the underrated Ewan McGregor) can use his publishing power to help promote her book, but he keeps canceling his appointments.  He is so arrogant, he even drives his common sense assistant (the great David Hyde Pierce) nuts.


Novak will not take no for an answer, and decides to hunt Block down until she gets what she wants.  The twist occurs when he gets the upper hand and starts to pretend to be someone else.  She is also being somewhat coy, and that’s not the half of it.  Instead of being too cutesy and running into pointless repetition, the film is extremely perceptive of the male/female relationship, now and then, as well as how little much of the politics have changed.  How both sides can still act so silly out of insecurity and wanting dysfunctional control, then it finds every bit of humor it can out of it.


Many compared and contrasted this film to more serious recent efforts out of the same era like Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven and Paul Schrader’s Auto Focus (both 2002), but it actually does for those 1960s romantic comedies what Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up Doc? (1972) did for the Screwball Comedies of the 1930s and 1940s.  Both understood all of them, then boldly and very successfully brought together all the great elements (minus the past stars for the most part) into one exceptional film.


Sadly, because Fox had too many good films at the time, like the hits Phone Booth (reviewed elsewhere on this site) and X-Men 2, this film was strongly overlooked, but the DVD release is bound to change that.  Add the word of mouth it will get and this will be a picture that should eventually catch on.  If it really goes over, Fox ought to consider theatrical reissue, especially if the Academy Awards people could remember some of its finer points.


The anamorphically enhanced 2.35 X 1 image is credited as CinemaScope at the beginning of the film, but that is in frame only.  The actual lenses were Panavision and that older system used two lenses that often caused distortions the newer single-lens systems do not.  The transfer is not bad, but not as clear as expected, as if the telecine artist was trying to make it look like older CinemaScope.  That is not the way it looked theatrically, but that will not be too distracting, and this is not to say the picture is THAT distorted either.  It will make for an interesting comparison whenever the D-VHS version comes out.  Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, A.S.C., was very public about this look not being his kind of shooting, but his mastery of darker material (David Fincher’s Fight Club) and other past use of scope framing gives him an edge in the exaggerated depth and wide, long shots that the older films were famous for.


The exaggerated set sizes (just to fill a Scope frame) and the attention to color detail further enhanced digitally, which was not as obnoxious as expected, is effective and feels totally authentic when old-fashioned rear projection is thrown in.  The sound is in Dolby Digital 5.1, but unfortunately, not DTS.  Mark Shaiman’s score is on the money, with its naïve whimsy in full swing.  There are also some other great moments of sound, like when Block first appears, leaving a helicopter by ladder!  Shaiman even seems to be referencing John Barry’s Goldfinger score (1964), when the camera pans a Florida resort.  The older films were, especially when Fox made them, in multi-channel magnetic stereo sound.  This mix remembers that, even having fun with the idea of a greatly lost sound feature: traveling dialogue.


Extras include a good commentary by Reed, who 8 mini-production featurettes, the HBO Network special on the film, a funny gag reel, the videotape footage of the Block/Novak duet from the film that appears on TV then in their time, and some deleted scenes.  Some of those scenes could have stayed in the film, and all of them have more informative commentary.  These “value added” features are so good, you will wish there were more, but these also have rewatchability.


The cast also has great chemistry, and the appearance of Tony Randall as the head of Novak’s publishing company is a great plus.  These people work exceptionally well together; you can feel the joy and spontaneity of the scenes, some of which were hard to do without laughing to death.  The truth of the mater is that these are some of the best actors working today, and Reed has a very promising future as a director.  I admire how smart Zellweger keeps choosing her roles, especially now that she is in power to pick and choose.  McGregor is such a great comic actor, but also can do Action and Drama with equal ease.  He does his homage to several of the great male leads of the time, like Dean Martin, Sean Connery, Garner and Hudson among others.  Pierce is essentially playing the role Randall did in the prototypes for this kind of work, advising the lead while sometimes being clue-limited himself.


Down With Love is the year’s most underrated film and should not stay a secret much longer.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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