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Down With Love refreshingly revives the romantic comedy genre

Down With Love refreshingly revives the romantic comedy genre

For a breezy tutorial on everything that’s wrong with the romantic comedy these days, see Down With Love. Not as a symptom—as a cure. By doing just about everything right, it shows with startling clarity why, for nearly a decade, the boy-meets-girl formula has been sputtering along on one cylinder.

The romantic comedy of late has mistaken itself for romance, comedy or both. Down With Love demonstrates that it’s operetta and always has been. Operetta defines itself in opposition to its legitimate cousins—opera, ballet, tragedy and comedy—and therefore cannot take taste or culture seriously. Knowing this, director Peyton Reed has cast his leads based on qualities that play well on the vaudeville stage: movement, pipes, general hamminess. The broader and bigger, the better.

With his background in TV animation and sketch comedy, Reed has a love of formula that trumps the modern tendency to wink at it and then skewer it. In his first feature, Bring It On, he reinvented the ’50s teen-dance-contest flick, staging it as a dynamic cheerleading competition with just the right balance of offbeat humor and surprising earnestness. And in Down With Love, he lifts the farcical battle-of-the-sexes plot from the Rock Hudson-Doris Day pictures of the ’60s and transforms it into the smartly choreographed screwball interludes of an Astaire-Rogers collaboration.

From the moment Renée Zellweger, as pseudo-feminist author Barbara Novak, sheds her boxy jacket to reveal Carnaby Street chic, we know that this is no Pajama Game: With Doris, even the negligees were sexless. Zellweger in a bikini, on the other hand, has the Betty Grable vibe that makes the premise of her character’s book—“women don’t need men”—irresistible to international playboy and man’s-man journalist Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor). He hatches a plot to show the world, by way of an exposé in Know magazine (conveniently owned by guy-pal and unconvincing heterosexual David Hyde Pierce), that Barbara doesn’t practice what she preaches.

The essence of the sex-battle formula is that the players are always switching sides, and Down With Love sets about repainting the chess pieces with gusto—and at least two more reversals than you might expect. Zellweger and McGregor preach their train-wreck ideologies—Betty Friedan vs. Hugh Hefner—with confident zeal, lose faith with jet-set speed, and synthesize counter-philosophies on the spot. In the Hudson-Day prototype, both characters must have their consciousness lowered in order to meet in love’s lowest-common-denominator plane, and the good-natured comedies are politically repellent as a result. But Reed and writers Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake (also TV refugees) understand that these characters only think that what they think matters. It’s really about what precedes the supposed convictions that come pouring from their mouths: body language and vocal tone. Transcribe the dialogue into diatonic pitches, note down the movements in dance notation, and you could re-create the movie without losing a single nuance.

That’s why the movie’s burlesque-show smut and the two-ton double entendres sail right by like a Yellow Cab. That’s why this isn’t Rock and Doris—it’s better, because the serious concept of sexual politics doesn’t have to lose for the movie to win. Thank the gods of entertainment, the mating dance is really a dance again.

—Donna Bowman

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