Once upon a time unchartered by The Matrix crowd, meaning the 1960s, Hollywood made comedies in which Doris Day played a professional virgin and Rock Hudson, then a closeted gay, played a stud who failed to get in her pants unless he flashed a wedding ring. These films were sugary fantasies shot on studio sets with painted backdrops. They had no resemblance to the world we live in, then or now. That’s what was fun about them.
Down With Love is an attempt to recreate that Pillow Talk era. For starters, the film looks as yummy as Renée Zellweger, who shows up in full Doris Day twinkle as Barbara Novak, a new girl in the Big Apple. She’s promoting her book, a manifesto advising single women to favor career over marriage and sex over love. Ewan McGregor plays Catcher Block (great name), a Brit playboy journalist out to expose Barbara as a sham; he’ll do that by pretending he’s a naive astronaut from Texas and make Barbara fall in marriage-minded love with him.
With David Hyde Pierce doing the Tony Randall role from the Day-Hudson movies as Catcher’s prissy editor, the gay subtext comes to the fore only to hang there, unexplored. Director Peyton Reed, who deftly handled the 2000 cheerleader comedy Bring It On, can’t hoist the script by first-timers Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake above the level of cheap laughs. In Far From Heaven, director Todd Haynes crafted a 1950s melodrama that caught the surface of the period and the tensions roiling underneath. Down With Love is all surface, and its mocking tone grows grating. More damagingly, Zellweger has no zing with McGregor, who seems uncomfortable in a stud role that, say, Hugh Jackman could have nailed. What starts as freshly spun cotton candy ends as something pink, sticky and indigestible. You leave the theater wanting to puke it up.