18 May 2003 | ljp-2
"Pillow Talk" was a hundred times more sophisticated than this!
"Down with Love,' as everyone has heard by this time, is an attempt to recreate the time period, look and feel of the 1959 Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedy `Pillow Talk' and other 50's-60's romantic comedies like it. But I have a feeling that the screenwriters, Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake, never actually saw the original, which was a hundred times smarter, funnier and more sophisticated than their uninspired efforts to lampoon it.
As the script would have it, women were still unenlightened when Barbara Novak comes to New York to promote her new book `Down with Love,' arguing for sexual equality in the bedroom as well as the boardroom. She catches the attention of playboy journalist Catcher Block, who sets out to prove that she's a fake and really only desires romance and marriage, like all women. Renee Zellweger, with her adorably scrinched-up face and perpetual pout, is Barbara, and Ewan McGregor, while a bit scrawny for the Rock Hudson part, is suave and charming as Catcher. They are supported by the always funny David Hyde Pierce as Catcher's editor, in the fussy-neurotic Tony Randall part (of course!) and Sarah Paulson as Barbara's friend and editor. They are great, and so is the candy-colored decor and the kicky 60's clothes, but the film is a dud, because it never decides what attitude to take toward the material-or even what era it's mocking.
While much of the film's plot derives from 1959's `Pillow Talk,' the plot device of Barbara's proto-feminist book is very similar to the 1964 comedy with Natalie Wood, `Sex and the Single Girl.' (Neatly splitting the time difference, `Down with Love' is set in 1962). The country certainly traveled a long way between 1959 and 1964. The film seems to raises the question: which will come off better, 1959 female `repression' or 1964-and-later `liberation?' As for what the screenwriters think, I have no idea. Their premise is a muddle and the script never elucidates it.
But just between us, I think 1959 actually comes off better. The characters Doris played would have utterly disdained Barbara's ideas about women being as promiscuous as some men. She was self-confident enough as a woman to know she didn't need to imitate men (and the worst of men at that). And as for getting ahead in the workplace. . .well, Doris didn't need any advice on how to become an independent career woman. She just was one. Today's filmmakers don't seem to understand the era at all; it was more advanced than they think.
This movie makes even more painfully obvious something I've come to feel more and more lately: that `political correctness,' is one of the greatest enemies of modern movie storytelling. Trying to be self-consciously `retro' while remaining completely ignorant of the past makes it even worse! In addition, the writers seem to be knocking themselves out to play it safe; they make sure we know that they know that feminism is good. . . `only not too much; that women are of course, to be free to have sex promiscuously like men; but in the end, they really prefer romance. We're for the sexual revolution, but for marriage too, you understand; we don't want to offend anyone. Please, please, like us. . .' As a result, the story, while going through the paces, has nowhere to go. Barbara and Catcher seem to be nervously working out a political position paper rather than engaging in a romance. By the end, after a plot twist or two that reverses everything you've previously thought about the characters, you just don't care.
Nor is this movie in any way as witty and sophisticated as the original. The sex gags are obvious and labored. You may remember that in the most memorable scene in `Pillow Talk,' Doris and Rock, in their separate bathtubs in a split-screen shot, appeared to be playfully touching bare toes as they talked on the phone. `Down with Love' tries to replicate this with modern explicitness, having the characters mime various kinky sexual positions -- and it just doesn't work. The earlier scene was sweet -- and sizzling. The modern one is just silly and smutty. Of course, they had to be sure that today's Austin-Powers-watching kids would get it. For some reason, the writers think they are striking a blow for `real' sexiness on screen, as opposed to the `quaint' and chaste original. Ah, but real sexiness lies in the art of suggestion -- and true sophistication is trusting your audience to get the joke without thinking you have to whack them over the head with it.
Few screen pairings were ever as funny and sexy as Doris Day and Rock Hudson, and you really couldn't expect that here, with the script working totally against the performers. Ewan and Renee did offer a few sweet moments. Their song and dance over the closing credits was also terrific. It's a pity, because they are both such delightful performers. They deserved a lot better-and so did we.