Stevi Costa is doing three re-views over two weeks. Today, it’s a 2,000-word Ewan McGregor squeefest on Down With Love.
This week, you’ll get two reviews from me. One of them will be an intellectual contemplation about the body, art, and performance. One of them will be a fangirl lovefest dedicated to Ewan McGregor. This review is the latter.
In the early days of our courtship, the editor of this website and I watched a lot of movies together. The summer of 2003, right before I went off to college, was a time rife with this kind of activity. We’d spend all day inside a darkened theater together if we could, and we often did. This means, of course, that we saw all kinds of movies – from smart independent dramas to tentpole summer blockbusters to strange little gems like Peyton Reed’s homage to broad 1960s sex comedies, Down with Love.
Reed’s film is a highly silly tribute to a genre of film that is itself highly silly. Plausability means nothing in the world of the sex comedy. The only true currency in that high gloss world is double entendre, broad jokes laid on so thick that modern audiences can’t really laugh at them, and complicated plot twists that place characters in unusual situations. In Down with Love, Barbara Novak writes a little pink book with some underlying early feminist ideas about love and romance that, through clever marketing, changes the way that women relate to men in 1962. Barbara’s book suggests that women can only gain equality to men if they take love out of the equation, which means, of course, that they can then have sex the way men do, “à la carte.” Barbara and her editor, Vicky (played by the phenomenal Sarah Paulson), want to boost sales of their book by getting a feature story in Know magazine penned by its star journalist, Catcher Block, “ladies’ man, man’s man, man about town”(played by the utterly charming, boyishly handsome Ewan McGregor). But Catch isn’t interested, of course, in any lady who presents herself as being “down with love,” which results in a series of missed meetings involving the ladies in spectacular outfit changes, and Catch phoning in to cancel with a series of double entendres about dogs-which-are-really-stewardesses. (Sample dialogue: Catch, while nuzzling a French stewardess at a Yankee’s game: “I’m at the park with my little French poodle and, well, she simply isn’t ready to go in yet.” Barbara: “A piece of advice from the farm girl to the city boy: If you stick a twig in her bottom she’ll remember why she went out with you in the first place.”) Barbara’s book eventually takes off due to some clever marketing by Vicky, and Catch soon realizes that Barbara is not the spinster librarian he thought she was. She’s actually a pretty woman, and he devises a plan to expose her as a fraud by getting her to fall in love with him. This means that he spends most of the film pretending to be an astronaut named Zip Martin who speaks in a flat Southern drawl . . . which I personally find pretty irresistible coming out of McGregor’s mouth. Eventually, Catch is caught in his lie, but not before really falling in love with Barbara and devising another, smaller, more heartfelt plan to get back in her good graces. Happy endings ensue. Barbara and Catch take a helicopter to Vegas to get hitched.
The plot and the jokes in Down with Love are obviously silly and over the top, but they are a perfect reiteration of the tone of the 1960s sex comedies starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day that this film strives to replicate. And the adherence to such an odd American film genre was one of the things I appreciated most about Down with Love when I saw it in 2003. My love for mid-century Americana clearly runs deep. It does, however, take a certain caliber of actor to really pull off a film this odd, and Peyton Reed nailed it by casting David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Paulson as the secondary leads, Catch and Barbara’s editors, Peter and Vicky, who also eventually pair up, in spite of Vicky’s suspicions that Peter is a closeted homosexual desperately in love with Catcher Block (a conclusion she draws because Catch and Peter have switched apartments to better seduce their romantic pairings). “So what?” she exclaims. “You’re a homosexual in love with Catcher Block. That’s no reason we can’t be married!” Paulson and Pierce are actor’s actors. They understand what it means to play old-style comedy because they take the jokes seriously. They commit to these roles, without throwing us knowing postmodern winks and smiles that let us know they’re in on the joke, and that’s what makes them work. Each of their scenes together are highlights of the film, and I find a special joy in watching two openly gay actors play a couple whose romance plot involves one party willing to be the other’s beard.
McGregor is also perfectly cast. He also understands how to play the dialogue with the right mid-century cadence (helped, in fact, by his Scottish accent . . . and his later employment of his flat Southern drawl that turns me into a puddle of lady goo whenever I hear it). McGregor gets to balance playing the jokes with a knowing smile and taking them seriously, and both strategies work because he’s never winking at us when he pulls away from seriousness – he’s winking at his scene partner, who he usually isn’t in the same scene with. McGregor has a great double entendre scene about sock garters with David Hyde Pierce where their conversation is overheard by a secretary and misinterpreted as being about the amazing stay up power of Catch’s cock (a truly amazing power of McGregor’s, which you’d know if you’ve seen any number of his brooding independent films…I recommend The Pillow Book!). Pierce and McGregor play the scene internally, totally straight. But in other scenes where he evades Barbara with dog-stewardess jokes or a telephone split screen scene where Catch and Barbara work out while planning a date in a number of mock sexual positions, the sexually charged word play is less subtle and delivered knowingly to his scene partner. That knowing delivery still reads as commitment for Catch because we know he’s playing Barbara, so a little extra “play” in his line readings feels real and serious to us. It works.
The cast member who works less well for me is Zellwegger. She, like McGregor, was having a moment in the early 2000s, so we saw a lot of her between 2000-2006. In retrospect, I now feel she is mostly miscast. Here is one of those instances. It’s not for lack of trying on her part. She can wrap her mouth around most of the dialogue, but she doesn’t seem to understand the spirit of midcentury sex comedies. Her ability to sell the concept fades in and out. It feels like she doesn’t know what movie she’s in. Furthermore, she just doesn’t look right. Her makeup isn’t historically accurate, and that really irks me because everyone else in the film looks like 1962. Her hair isn’t a hairpiece, and seems too flat in a world of bi-weekly salon appointments and hairspray. This is very obvious compared to the beautiful fall Sarah Paulson is rocking as Vicky. Finally, she simply doesn’t look like anyone you’d see in a 1960s movie. Zellwegger may be beautiful, and has a special Texas country charm that was popular when Kelly Clarkson won American Idol, but she isn’t 1960s beautiful. Even 10 years later, I’d still keep the rest of the cast. I still think Pierce and Paulson and McGregor would look right in these roles. But Zellwegger I’d replace immediately. Amy Adams or Isla Fisher are better choices. Or even Brittany Snow. Darling little Gretchen Mol. Any secretary you see in the background on Mad Men. Just…anyone.
Speaking of Mad Men, Down with Love didn’t do well in 2003. The time was not right for a midcentury sex comedy, but, oh! Had Peyton Reed just waited! Had he waited four years for Don Draper to brood in an office, I think the world would have been more receptive to Down with Love. Don Draper ushers inRevolutionary Road, The Master, Howl, and On the Road in cinemas, and a series of failed midcentury setpieces on TV like Pan-Am. Being deeply immersed in genre and the 1960s wasn’t of cultural interest to us in the early millennium, and I’m not sure why. The music in Down with Love is composed by Hairspray’s Marc Shaiman, which hit Broadway the summer prior to Down with Love’s release. Hairspray, a 1960s musical comedy, does set the stage for a return to 1960s culture, but it doesn’t become a Zac Efron movie until 2007. Broadway, while I love it, and while it certainly features heavily into the narrative of Down with Love, doesn’t have the global cultural capital that film and television do. Broadway’s Hairspray didn’t set the midcentury momentum, and so Shaiman’s Broadway success also fails allow Down with Love to ride that wave. Maybe after the film version of Hairspray was released the film would have had more success. It could have cashed in on that and Mad Men. But in 2003, it was a flop. An underrated and unseen gem.
I promised at the top of this review that there would be a significant portion of it dedicated to some fangirly squealing about Ewan McGregor. I managed to collect myself for the above and compliment his acting enough to convince you how well suited he is for the role of Catcher Block, now let me unravel a little bit and share with you the things that actually go on in my head when I watch this film:
WHY ARE YOU SO HANDSOME, EWAN MCGREGOR? Your teeth are so white!
I just…I just can’t…I can’t even look at Ewan McGregor in most of this movie. The gingham jacket…the broad Southern accent…The GODDAMN GLASSES…I just turn into an incoherent puddle of lady goo.
I AM DYING I’M JUST FUCKING DYING AT EWAN IN THIS BROADWAY MONTAGE THE BEATNIK TURTLENECK AND PROFESSOR 20-SOMETHING JACKET THE POLO AND JACKET COMBO AT THE BALLPARK THE FUCKING HIPSTER BEATNIK TWIST OUTFIT I AM DEAD I AM NO LONGER A PERSON
I shit you not, people. Those are my actual notes. The film should be retitled, “Ewan McGregor in a Series of Outfits That Stevi Finds Increasingly Attractive.” No matter how silly this film is, or how much I’ve grown to hate Rene Zellwegger, Down with Love will always work for me because it takes two things I love and sticks them together: great midcentury clothing and Ewan McGregor. He’s too, too perfect as a ladies’ man, man’s man, man about town because given how fucking gorgeous he is throughout this entire film, I can’t imagine a situation in which a human being wouldn’t want to sleep with him. Especially in those outfits! I’d happily be his little English foxhound or French poodle or Swedish laphound or any other bitch he wanted me to be. And he wouldn’t even have to concoct a series of schemes to get me to do so.
A Final Thought:
The scheming bachelor pattern established by Catcher Block in this film did make me think of another scheming bachelor in pop culture, and forced me to ask this existential question: would Barney Stinson even exist without Catcher Block and the 1960s sex comedy? Discuss.