[Screen It]

(2003) (Renee Zellweger, Ewan McGregor) (PG-13)

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Romantic Comedy: A 1960s era reporter tries to get an author to fall in love with him to prove that she and her best-selling book about liberating women from love are frauds.
It's 1962 New York and Barbara Novak (RENEE ZELLWEGER) is an author who's just written a female empowerment book by the name of "Down With Love." In it, she proclaims that women shouldn't confuse sex with love and should treat the former like a plaything, much like men do. Despite the efforts of her editor, Vikki Hiller (SARAH PAULSON), and the publishing power of head boss Theodore Banner (TONY RANDALL), however, the book barely gets noticed.

That is, until it's mentioned on the Ed Sullivan show. It's soon flying off the shelves, resulting in wives and other women suddenly refusing to act the way the men in their lives expect them to. That doesn't sit well with swinging playboy and ace reporter Catcher Block (EWAN McGREGOR). Ever the ladies man, he believes that all women want is love and marriage and thus sets out to prove Barbara to be a fraud.

Yet, since he's already stood her up several times, he takes on the personality of Zip Martin, a genial NASA astronaut who'd never dream of taking advantage of a woman and has never heard of Barbara or her book. Since she's become public enemy number one to most every man in the country, she instantly falls under his spell.

As his boss, Peter MacMannus (DAVID HYDE PIERCE), goes along with the ruse and finds himself drawn to Vikki, Catcher does what he must to make Barbara fall head over heels in love with him, all while trying to be careful that he doesn't fall for her.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
The older one gets, the more likely they are to distrust the government, misunderstand teenagers and their musical tastes, and/or repeatedly state, "They don't make 'em like they used to." That could refer to cars, hot dogs or blue-chip companies, but faithful readers know this sort of intro only applies to movies.

While it's probably less due to the truth than with history, time and the funny effect they have on memory, it does seem that they don't make movies as good - particularly in quantity -- as they once did. That's particularly true with romantic comedies that routinely arrive nowadays in such a cookie-cutter form that you know exactly what will occur even before the initial credits run.

It wasn't always that way, however, as the genre once delivered terrific screwball and "wholesome" sex variations. Probably once risqué but now far tamer than most of what's on TV, the naughty but nice efforts of Doris Day and Rock Hudson in "Pillow Talk" (1959), "Lover Come Back" (1961) and "Send Me No Flowers" (1964) set a standard for the genre that hasn't since been topped.

For those who favor those efforts of a bygone era comes a little surprise by the name of "Down With Love." A throwback to the Day/Hudson romantic comedies of yesteryear, the film is a pitch-perfect reproduction of those films. That is, as filtered through a 21st century eye and taste for pushing the sex comedy boundaries a bit more than was possible 40 some years ago.

As written by screenwriters Eve Ahlert & Dennis Drake (making their feature debut) and directed by Peyton Reed ("Bring It On"), the film takes place in the '60s. A bit of a spoof but mostly loving homage, it also has the look and feel of such films from that era.

Kudos should go to production designer Andrew Laws ("Phone Booth," "Tigerland"), art director Martin Whist ("Phone Booth," "Swordfish"), costume designer Daniel Orlandi ("Kangaroo Jack," "Meet the Parents"), cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth ("One Hour Photo," "Fight Club") and composer Marc Shaiman ("One Night at McCools," "The Story of Us") who have faithfully captured and/or recreated the sights, sounds and aura of such pictures. In fact, and despite the obviously faked backdrops and kitschy props, the film is easily one of the most attractive so far this year and is clearly a nonstop piece of eye candy.

The performers have also done their homework when it comes to faithfully emulating the look, movements and vocal patterns of their predecessors. Although the sexual banter and material is more Austin Powers than Pillow Talk, the cast and crew have obviously been careful not to go too far in their reproduction and thus become a full-bore spoof (like Mike Myers and company did in those Powers films).

While diehard fans of Day and Hudson might disagree, Renee Zellweger ("Chicago," "Bridget Jones's Diary") and Ewan McGregor ("Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones," "Moulin Rouge") do a fine job fitting the bill as a controversial author and the reporter who's determined to foil her. As in any such film, it's not difficult to see where things are headed with their characters, but the two leads - particularly McGregor - make the most of their material and then some.

In those older films, Tony Randall (TV's "The Odd Couple") played the third-wheel sort of character. While he briefly appears here in the form of an old fuddy-duddy (but is mostly wasted in the cameo bit), he hands over his former character type to David Hyde Pierce ("Full Frontal," "Isn't She Great").

Having already played and nailed a similar sort of character on TV's "Frasier," Pierce was obviously the perfect choice for the role and he's terrific and quite funny in it. Unfortunately, Sarah Paulson ("What Women Want," "The Other Sister") isn't quite up to the effort of matching his work, and is just okay in the role.

As the movie unfolded, I feared that it was either going to run out of gas and/or run its essentially one-note purpose (of recreating those old films) into the ground, much like many a filmed "Saturday Night Live" skit has done. After all, beyond the stepping up of the sexual material (with the basis of some of it - such as the split screen hijinks - coming directly from the originals), was there anything else to sustain a feature length film?

While some of the charm, banter and recreated look do occasionally feel a bit forced, the cast and crew do manage to make the film enjoyable enough to stand on its own, even after the early moments of "hey, they got that right" have waned.

Not quite as fluffily enjoyable as some of its predecessors, but a fairly entertaining and terrific effort of paying homage nonetheless, "Down With Love" proves that they can make 'em like they used to, or at least a close facsimile thereof. It rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed May 13, 2003 / Posted May 16, 2003

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