"Down With Love" is the most exhilarating piece of old-meets-new moviemaking since "Moulin Rouge," and it's no coincidence that Ewan McGregor is at the center of both.
Director Peyton Reed ("Bring It On") and his team have drawn their inspiration from the Rock Hudson-Doris Day vehicles of the late 1950s and early '60s, and they replicate the look, feel and sound of those sugary, wholesome sex comedies with joyous accuracy. Except this being 2003, they're free to shed the wholesomeness when they choose.
But the whole thing would be an empty, transparent exercise in style without an actor of McGregor's total commitment. He throws himself into the role of a suave ladies' man with a fearless abandon that Hudson never had. He's both sly and exuberant, calculating and uninhibited. He has no poses, no defenses, no worries that he'll look silly or full of himself.
Place McGregor's blithe, womanizing journalist of "Down With Love" alongside his love-addled poet of "Moulin Rouge," and it's clear he's a rare and extraordinary performer, one who combines the old-school showmanship of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly with the emotional nakedness of contemporary Method actors.
McGregor is Catcher Block, and the object of his increasing ardor is Barbara Novak (Renee Zellweger), who arrives in 1962 Manhattan from a small town in Maine with a manuscript that shares the movie's title. Her book urges women to empower themselves in the workplace and in the bedroom, treating sex the way men do - as disposable fun.
Catcher is enlisted to write a story about Barbara by Peter MacMannus (David Hyde Pierce), his editor at Know magazine, who in turn is smitten by Barbara's editor, Vikki Hiller (Sarah Paulson). At first Catcher blows her off, but when the book becomes popular - and he sees how attractive Barbara is - he vows to romance Barbara and write an expose pegging her just another lovesick girl.
Like Hudson's character in "Pillow Talk," Catcher creates a nerdy hick persona to woo a woman who despises him but has never seen his face. But "Down With Love" is enlightened enough to know that deception is a game women can play just as skillfully.
Zellweger gets top billing over McGregor, but unlike Nicole Kidman she's not quite the match for him. While she's a forceful and sexy self-made woman - far more desirable than Doris Day could ever be - she doesn't share McGregor's ease with the movie's stylizations. Physically, her performance is clunky and awkward.
In the Tony Randall role, Pierce is hilarious and stunningly precise, his every over-the-top reaction pitch-perfect. (Randall himself makes a rather flat cameo as Barbara's publisher.) The weak link in the cast is Paulson, who starts out charming but becomes more shrill and hissy as the movie goes along.
"Down With Love" astonishes as it celebrates the artistry that once went into popular moviemaking. Reed's direction crackles with verbal and visual wit; Jeff Cronenweth's cinematography effortlessly recreates the old '60s Technicolor look and the optical effects in vogue at the time; Larry Bock's editing brilliantly allows jokes and compositions to spill over from one scene to the next; and Marc Shaiman's score underlines the action down to the second, with a musical cue for every crooked smile or batting of the eyebrows. The costume design, the art direction - everything is fabulous, and it's all of a piece.
Only the script, by Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake, shows hints of strain. In their effort to break the taboos of the movies they're emulating, Ahlert and Drake lose some of their predecessors' verbal elegance. When you've heard the words "have sex with" a dozen times, the movie's spell over you is in danger of breaking.
And the writers haven't captured the languid pacing of the previous generation's movies; though many scenes run longer than is now fashionable, "Down With Love" still feels rushed. The final half-hour in particular pushes what should be juicy material through a whirlwind that dries it out.
Quibbles aside, "Down With Love" is funny, sexy and disarmingly accessible; it builds up such enormous waves of good will that its achievement cannot be understated. This is a movie that intercuts Frank Sinatra and Astrud Gilberto's versions of "Fly Me to the Moon," and when it's over you'll feel as if you've been flown there too.
"Down With Love," a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 for sexual humor and dialogue. Running time: 96 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G - General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG - Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 - Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R - Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 - No one under 17 admitted.