“One Big Zany Sex Comedy”: Peyton Reed’s Down with Love (2003)
I love romantic-comedies. Throughout Hollywood history, the romantic-comedy has taken different shapes, from screwball comedies, to films about sex, to the more fantastical ones. Popular opinion on romantic-comedies was on the downswing in the early 2000s. A few films like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Love Actually, and Sweet Home Alabama were financially successful and can be considered cult classics. But it seemed like the heyday of romantic-comedies were over. Peyton Reed’s 2003 film Down with Love positioned itself as a throwback to the midcentury sex comedy, specifically 1959’s Pillow Talk and 1961’s Lover Come Back (both of which star Doris Day, Rock Hudson, and Tony Randall).
Down with Love stars Renee Zellweger as Barbara Novak, author of the book Down with Love. The book teaches women to free themselves from love and men, which Barbara is sure will help them gain independence. Though her publishing company is hesitant, Barbara’s editor Vikki Hiller (Sarah Paulson), arranges for Barbara to meet notorious womanizer Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor). Catcher continually stands up Barbara and Vikki, leaving his best friend Peter McMannus (David Hyde Pierce) to answer for him. But when Barbara’s book causes one of Catcher’s dates to reject him, he hatches a plot to prove that Barbara is a fraud by posing as naïve astronaut Zip Martin.
Released against Matrix Reloaded in May 2003, Down with Love was not financially successful. The film made just under $40 million worldwide against a budget of $35 million. I can’t really imagine any climate where Down with Love is a box office hit. It’s a painstaking recreation of a very specific genre, and one that has not reverberated through to the 2000s. Peyton Reed, and screenwriters Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake, evoke the camerawork, set design, costuming, dialogue, and themes of these old Hollywood sex comedies. The visual gags, saucy puns, double entendres, and implausible mistaken identity plots are affectionately satirized. But more importantly, Down with Love updates the 1960s sex farce to modern times, especially regarding sexual politics.
In films like Pillow Talk, the narrative hinges on the idea that men want sex and women want marriage. It’s not that women don’t want sex; they just want it within monogamy. In Down with Love, the women following Barbara’s advice—including Vikki and Barbara herself—struggle with resisting men and sublimate that desire into eating chocolate (which could be a sly metaphor). The film presents women as desirous, not just desirable, something that Pillow Talk and similar films never quite depicted outright.
These sex comedies usually have a man creating a persona to seduce a seemingly unconquerable woman. Down with Love features that as well, but with a twist. As Catcher plots to expose Barbara, he finds that he is in love with her and can’t go through with it. But as he’s about to confess that his “Zip Martin” character is fake, Barbara reveals that she is also playing a character. She used to be his secretary but he didn’t pay any attention to her. So she became a best-selling author to beat him at his own game. Peyton Reed films this as an unbroken shot on Renee Zellweger doing this three-minute monologue. The cut to Ewan McGregor’s bewildered expression is brilliant. This sets up a role reversal—Catcher becomes hopelessly in love with Barbara—just as his old dates were obsessed with him. The role reversal and the weaponized sex preached by Barbara are what pushes Down with Love from the second wave feminism of the 1960s to the third wave feminism of the 2000s.
For me, Down with Love is one of the most underrated movies and I’m glad to see it become more appreciated. The casting of Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor is perfect. Zellweger was at the peak of her career, coming off her best performances in Chicago and Bridget Jones’ Diary. Ewan McGregor was just in the iconic Moulin Rouge and successful Star Wars prequels. Their chemistry is off the charts, and they fit right into the 1960s aesthetic. Sarah Paulson (years before her breakthrough) and David Hyde Pierce are lovably loony and charming. The film also has a cameo from Tony Randall, which is delightful. Peyton Reed’s quirky, vibrant, and witty romantic-comedy may be a throwback, but it’s one embellished by modern sensibilities.