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Down With Love (May 15/03)

The thing most people seem to have forgotten is that the Doris Day/Rock Hudson flicks of the '50s that have inspired Down With Love just weren't that good. They were innocuous and cute, but instantly forgettable. Down With Love, though it does manage to coast along on good vibes for a while, eventually just becomes too much of a good thing.

Set in 1962, the film stars Renee Zellweger as Barbara Novak, a woman that's just written a book called Down With Love. Down With Love, which encourages women to eschew romance in favor of their careers, becomes an instant success - which prompts famed men's magazine Know to assign their best writer to the story. That would be Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor), a notorious womanizer who finds himself distracted by a different girlfriend each time he's to meet with Barbara. This behavior finally causes her to refuse to see him, an action that leads to the creation of Catcher's alter ego, an astronaut named Zip. As Zip, Catcher plans to make Barbara fall in love with him - thus proving that even she cannot say "down with love."

The first half (approximately) of Down With Love is so delightful and fun, that when the movie does eventually become tiresome, it's a real disappointment. A big part of the film's downfall is sheer overlength. Running close to two hours, the movie just doesn't have enough story to propel itself forward for that long. Had it been trimmed down to 80-minutes, there's no doubt it would've been far more effective. Though Down With Love certainly doesn't lack in the characters department - some of the most engaging portions of the film are courtesy of the supporting players - the screenplay runs out of steam somewhere around the midway mark and becomes almost endlessly repetitious. Once Catcher becomes Zip, the film settles into a predictable routine - Barbara wants nothing more than to sleep with Zip, so he does everything he can to put her off until she falls in love with him. It's not necessarily a bad setup, but this aspect of the film goes on for so long that it really becomes monotonous after a while.

But I'm still recommending the film, mostly because of the fantastic acting and stunning set design. The two leads are perfect in their roles, with McGregor in particular a lot of fun as both Catcher and Zip. The real scene stealer here, though, is David Hyde Pierce as Catcher's editor at Know magazine. Leaving all traces of Niles behind, Pierce essentially assumes Tony Randall's patented wacky-best-friend role to great effect (Randall even cameos as the owner of the magazine). His would-be relationship with Barbara's editor (Sarah Paulson) is certainly a welcome respite from the occasionally dull main storyline.

Kudos have to go, of course, to the folks behind the look of the film. Director Peyton Reed keeps things light and fun (even if he doesn't know when to call it quits), and the various outfits worn by the characters couldn't possibly be more colorful. The painted backdrops and use of rear-screen projection certainly helps add that '50s feel to the film (even the logo for 20th Century Fox has been changed to its old-school look), and Reed makes good use of long-since-forgotten cinematic tricks (such as the split-screen during phone calls). However, the inclusion of some decidedly risqué moments amid the innocent goings-on (during said split-screen, Reed poses Catcher and Barbara in a variety of sexual positions) seems completely out of place. As this is supposed to be an homage to the romances of the '50s, such contemporary additions serve only as a distraction (as though Reed and the cast are winking at us).

Provided you're willing to look past the film's extreme overlength, Down With Love is bubbly and fun. And it should serve as a decent introduction to past romantic comedies for a whole new generation.

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