“Why, dear Emma, do you write mid-century romance, a subgenre which isn’t really a subgenre?”
“Well, gentle reader, the answer is simple: Down with Love.”
That’s right, this week’s fine romance Friday is Peyton Reed’s rom-com Down with Love (2003), which if you don’t know, stars Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor.
To talk about the plot of this movie is almost to the miss the point, but to blurb it briefly: Ewan McGregor is Catcher Block, “a man’s man, ladies man, man about town” who writes for KNOW Magazine (basically GQ). His newest assignment: write a tell-all about Barbara Novak (Ms. Zellweger), whose bestseller Down with Love is setting off a feminist revolution. He blows her off, then she insults him on TV, he becomes intrigued by her and pretends to be an yokel astronaut in order to seduce her and reveal to the world that she’s a–no, not that!–fraud. Except of course none of this works out. Hijinks ensue. And roll tape.
Look, you’re either intrigued by this set-up or you’re not. And I wouldn’t blame you if you want to run away screaming; this movie probably isn’t most people’s cup of tea. Except here’s the thing: I grew up watching way too much AMC, but back in the early 90s when AMC actually played classic movies. (Remember that?) And among those films were That Touch of Mink, Send Me No Flowers, Lover Come Back, and most of all Pillow Talk.
(ETA: other films in this genre include Sex and the Single Girl, A New Kind of Love, and maybe Some Like it Hot and Adam’s Rib. I’d define these films as a specific new version of screwball comedy made post WWII but before true Second Wave Feminism. They’re marked by either misrecognition or trickery playing a major role in the plot and they center on the battle of the sexes. They’re chaste compared to today’s sex comedies, but there’s a certain knowing wink at the camera that sets them apart from the typical romantic comedies of the same period.)
What were these mid-century sex comedies about, child me wondered. What was it that they danced around? What was Rock Hudson doing with all those women? Eventually I figured it out of course and became incensed by how there was inevitably a joke being played in the second act that everyone–and I do mean everyone–was in on except for Doris Day. And even when she got Rock (or Cary) back, she had to compromise.
These films are about feminism before there’s feminism. They’re interested in women’s problems, as long as the women are straight and young and white and slim and conventionally attractive and their problems are with landing a man. These movies are pretending to be sophisticated and edgy while they’re not.
…and I’m really selling you on this, aren’t I? But I promise, you need this context for Down with Love.
Let’s get the bad out of the way first: I’m not convinced that Down with Love is a good film, nor do I think that that it truly neutralizes or addresses what’s problematic about its source material. It is most definitely a beat-for-beat reimagining of a Doris Day-Rock Hudson sex comedy.
But what it does well is it makes the heroine aware of the tropes and it gives her some tools to fight back. There’s a moment at the end of the second act when Ms. Zellweger delivers this long monologue about the plot and about what’s really going on and even though the performance is grade-B, I just want to cheer every time I watch it.
And I do watch Down with Love frequently because it has the most adorable Ewan McGregor performance ever. EVER. In my head, Ewan in real life is Catcher Block. His house looks like Catcher’s apartment. He dances around every day to the strains of Frank Sinatra singing “Fly Me to the Moon.” He wears garters to hold up his socks. (Who’s with me?)
Also amazing: the clothes and sets. I still covet Ms. Zellweger’s pink tweed skirt from the poster. (Seriously, I would rock it.) Everything the women wear is to die for. Yum.
And then there’s the Tony Randall cameo, the soundtrack, and the general good humor of it.
So in short, get yourself a martini, and–even if it’s imperfect–watch Down with Love this evening.