The sunny, "new consumer" optimism of mainstream JFK-era pop culture is getting a good-natured drubbing in cinema multiplexes this summer. First, there was A Mighty Wind, Christopher Guest’s sublime parody of the folk boom; now it’s Down With Love, an affectionate send-up of Doris Day comedies. The musical groups targeted by A Mighty Wind gave us an aseptic, smiley-faced version of the socially engaged balladry coming from smoky Greenwich Village cafés. Similarly, the Rock Hudson-Doris Day picture, with its freeze-dried sexual patter and vacuum-sealed romantic plot, was not only inoculated against the real world of nuclear terror, the Civil Rights movement, and feminism, but also against the imminent decay of the Production Code. Down With Love is set in 1962, the year of The Birds, Jules et Jim, and Knife in the Water, watershed films that were boldly challenging the boundaries of movie sex and sadism. But Down With Love takes its interior design cues from froth like That Touch of Mink, where the battle of the sexes could be fought and won over martinis and Dean Martin records, and where Ban the Bomb protestors and beatniks only show up for a lame sight gag or two before evaporating into the ultra-square art deco atmosphere.
In fact, Down With Love is not about 1962 at all. It’s about the Doris Day version of 1962. Like last year’s Far From Heaven, which so imbibed the feel of Douglas Sirk melodramas that even the leaves on the trees in Julianne Moore’s lawn seemed to quiver with thwarted sexual desire, Down With Love filters 1962 through the sensibility of Hollywood cinema. Even the hip character names are coded movie references. Renée Zelleweger plays Barbara Novak, a young Doris Day qua Marilyn Monroe from Maine who has written a best-selling feminist manifesto entitled Down With Love. Her book counsels women to abandon the lure of romance and its hidden burden of household chores and boorish husbands for chocolate bars and "sex à la carte"–in other words, she urges them to live free, like their lascivious boyfriends do, and her message catches fire. Novak’s lady-killer nemesis is Catcher Block, assayed by Ewan McGregor as a swank synthesis of Rock Hudson and James Bond. When not shagging a never-ending series of stewardesses, or lounging about in his fully automated bachelor pad, Block works as an investigative reporter for a proto-GQ men’s magazine called "Know," as in "For Men in the Know." His latest scoop, which is sure to snare him yet another Pulitzer, is to make Barbara Novak violate her credo of sex without attachment or obligations by falling in love with him.
The plot is a perfect amalgam of a Doris Day comedy, and the jazzy decors, performances, and costumes are in sync with the retro-movie conception. Unfortunately, Down With Love seems unsure whether it wants to be outright parody or sly homage. It dips too easily and too frequently into Austin Powers-style lowbrow sex humor–some of which, like the dirty-minded riff on Pillow Talk’s split screen phone conversations, is admittedly quite funny. However, unlike Far From Heaven, which managed to be the most cutting-edge film of 2002 by studiously replicating one from 1958, Down With Love at its best only elicits a vague feeling of nostalgia for a type of film that probably seemed quaint and outmoded even when it was fresh out of the box.
As a final note, if you are in the mood for some genuine sex and intrigue from the age of Red Scares and the Mercury Space Program, be sure to swing by the Buskirk-Chumley theater, where a gala James Bond weekend kicks off on Friday evening. Eight 007 films will be shown, including the first four, which boasted the inimitable Sean Connery as Bond. The movies, most of which are fine, strutting entertainment, will be interspersed with roundtable discussions of the James Bond phenomenon, and the theater will even offer a very à propos formal dress reception on Saturday night. For ticket information and times, contact the Buskirk Chumley box office.