New York, 1962, and Barbara Novak (Renée Zellweger) arrives in the city with a new book to promote. It's called Down With Love, and outlines a different way for women to live their lives: forget romance, and concentrate on careers and sex, with chocolate as a substitute for love. She greets her editor, Vikki (Sarah Paulson), at the offices of the publishing house, and goes up to meet the board, but the all-male executives don't have much faith in her book, and publicity for it is almost nil. Dismayed, Barbara sees a ray of hope when she gets the chance to be interviewed by hotshot writer Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor) - will things go according to plan?
Written by Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake, Down With Love was a pastiche of all those late 1950s/early 1960s comedies starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson, such as Pillow Talk or Lover Come Back. It features a faithful recreation of the look of the genre, almost to a fault, with the bright colours and costumes, authentic furniture and design, and even the split screen effects and Cinemascope screen dimensions (as it proudly proclaims at the start), all presented with obsessive attention to detail.
The cast get the mood of the film just right, down to their movements and body language. Zellweger's Barbara is an independent woman of her time, and McGregor's Catcher is an independent man, so of course what they need most is each other. It'll take ninety minutes for them to work this out, however. The supporting cast are impeccable, with David Hyde Pierce as Peter, Catcher's neurotic editor in the Tony Randall mould (and Randall himself shows up as the head of the publishers). Sarah Paulson as Vikki is Barbara's best friend, and needs a man as much as she does.
Barbara's book is an instant bestseller, transforming the lives of the women of the world and broadening their horizons while the men are forced to swap roles and do the housework for a change. Although it physically resembles the kitschy sixties comedies, the film is not a carbon copy, and the women here are the ones looking for sex without commitment. Seeing the effects on society, the womanising Catcher decides to get his own back on behalf of men everywhere by posing as a callow visitor to New York, and thereby seduce Barbara, earning an exposé in the process.
One thing that Down With Love brings out is that while those vintage Doris Day comedies were coy on the surface, in fact they were completely preoccupied with sex. To this end, we are treated to a wealth of double entendres and saucy innuendo that Doris would never have dreamed of entertaining. Some of these are more inventive than others, and the unexpected spirit of Benny Hill hovers above quite a few of the more risqué gags.
Nevertheless, reassuringly, what it concludes is that what men and women really need is love - on the basis of equality, that is, and there's a twist in the tale that sees Catcher and Barbara view each other in a different light (with an incredible feat of memory by Zellweger, too). It's breezy and light for the most part, but how much you enjoy the film depends on how much you can take essentially the same joke repeated throughout the running time. Overall, though, Down With Love is great fun and nearly makes you think that it's a pity they don't make films like this anymore; Zellweger, in particular, is in her element. Excellent music by Marc Shaiman.