The only movies I’m interested in watching right now are romantic comedies. I’m low-energy and craving something sweet, so I’ve been bingeing on the kind of films I loved as a teenager. I rewatched Bend It Like Beckham (it’s about New Labour) and Burlesque (it’s about the recession), pondered the fall of Richard Curtis, witnessed Diane Lane Eat Pray Love her way across France (Paris Can Wait) and Italy (Under the Tuscan Sun) in linen trousers. But I was unprepared for the pure sugar high I would experience after watching 2003’s Down With Love. It left me so giddy I watched it twice.
The year is 1962 and Barbara Novak (Renée Zellweger) is in New York City to promote her new book Down With Love, a girl’s guide to sex without marriage. Magazine journalist and “ladies’ man, man’s man, man about town” Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor) is determined to prove Barbara’s thesis wrong – and so he invents a plan to make her fall in love with him, donning a pair of glasses and a Texan accent and disguising himself as a gentlemanly astronaut named Zip Martin.
The flirting, scheming and Sixties setting are lifted from the trio of beloved “bedroom comedies” made famous by Doris Day and Rock Hudson; the film is part homage to, part parody of films like Pillow Talk (1959), Lover Come Back (1961) and Send Me No Flowers (1964). With their double entendre-heavy dialogue and teasing split-screens (Pillow Talk showed Day and Hudson taking a bath “together” in their separate houses), those films were suggestive about the appetites of their characters, acknowledging the sexual revolution without fully embracing it. Like most conventional romantic comedies, bedroom comedies tended to end in marriage.
Upon its original release, Down With Love was dismissed as cheap pastiche, with the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw arguing that it updated the original by “adding yet more archness and irony, while subtracting any innocence or unassuming charm that might conceivably have made you feel affectionate about it in the first place”. Multiple critics compared it unfavourably with Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes’s love letter to Douglas Sirk’s 1955 melodrama All That Heaven Allows, released the previous year. This seems a little unfair given what director Peyton Reed (Bring It On) and writers Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake were going for.
The film is glossy, goofy and lightweight by design; worlds away from Haynes’s carefully wrought prestige drama. The premise of Barbara’s book suggests women substitute chocolate for sex; this is a not a serious movie. In the window of Barbara’s gorgeous penthouse is a skyline that looks as though it’s been painted on cardboard. McGregor delivers a monologue about his 16in… socks. There is a bizarre end-credits musical number called “Here’s to Love” (supposedly McGregor’s idea; he’d recently starred in Moulin Rouge, and Zellweger in Chicago).
Perhaps naysayers were confused by the extraordinary mid-century production design, assuming that serious attention to period detail meant serious imitation rather than playful tribute. Barbara’s enormous apartment in particular is dreamily transportive, with its fire pit and spiral staircase (immediately after watching, I found myself googling “Champagne coupes, set of six”). So are the clothes, especially a frilly satin overcoat in bright, Barbie pink (Mattel launched the doll in 1959) that Zellweger wears draped dramatically around her shoulders. Mad Men was still four whole years away.
An animated opening credits sequence is soundtracked by a Michael Bublé cover of a Judy Garland song; watching it 17 years after its release, the film is a bizarre, fascinating look at the Sixties filtered through early Noughties nostalgia. And 2003 was a boom year for the romcom, with genre staples How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Something’s Gotta Give and Love Actually released alongside a glut of wannabes (What A Girl Wants, Intolerable Cruelty, Just Married, The Fighting Temptations and the universally panned Gigli, a vehicle for the then engaged Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck).
A number of reviews wasted their word counts on scrutinising Zellweger’s athletic figure, not considering the ingenuity of her casting as a relatable good girl in the mould of Doris Day. In both Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back, Day played an unmarried career woman; Zellweger had recently starred as the avatar for city-dwelling single women in 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. “I said women should refrain from love, not sex,” says Zellweger’s Barbara, advocating for erotic fulfilment “a la carte” and walking with a wiggle. It feels like something Bridget might say.
“Down With Love” is available to stream in the UK on Amazon Prime Video
This article appears in the 20 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Moving Left Show