Andrew again, with your weekly monologue. Chances are, if you’re asked to remember what films were tickling your fancy a decade ago you wouldn’t turn to Peyton Reed’s sophomore effort Down with Love. I wouldn’t hold it against you. 2003 had many good films, even great ones to offer. Reed's pastiche of the sex-comedies of the '60s was unlikely to be anyone's #1 film of the year but that does not mean it's without ample merits.
When Down with Love opened in May 2003 to unexceptional reviews, both of its stars, Ewan McGregor and Renée Zellweger, had higher profile releases coming out in December of the same year and by the end of the year few were even thinking about it. Ten years after, less so. But that's unfortunate. The film, like many an homage, does not offer expressly much in the way of originality but as far as well intended romps in the romantic comedy genre go Down with Love ably succeeds more often than you’d expect. We're a few days late in celebrating its 10th anniversary, but for this week’s Monday Monologue here's a reminder of the frothy pleasures of the film...
Renée's Barbara Novak, the original 'down-with-love' girl is intent on taking down all chauvinistic dogs of the sixties. Ewan's playboy Catcher Block, 'ladies' man, man's man, man about town', is intent on taking her down to prove that her “down-with-love” posturing is artificial. He woos her in the guise of bumbling astronaut Zip Martin. And Barbara does fall in love with him, admitting as much on this final date of theirs. This is Catch’s moment since he’s proven that the 'down with love' notion is all a farce. But the other shoe is yet to drop. The *twist* of the film, where we find out the truth behind our heroine is ridiculously silly and forced - but in the execution it’s not quite so lumbering.
I'm not gonna storm out of here, Catch. And I'm not gonna admit that you got Barbara Novak to fall in love...because I'm not Barbara Novak. There is no Barbara Novak.
The monologue belongs to Renée, but that line is such a great throwaway moment from Ewan, mirroring the audience’s reaction. It’s often dubious when films have these final sleights of hand to present to the audience to spice things up. Ideally, Down with Love can get away with it because it’s riffing on the genre but the heft of this monologue both plays up the lampooning and threatens to derail the film's easy charm - up to this point. It manages to work (albeit tentatively) because Reed has enough confidence in his leading lady to shoot her in one continuous take – no cuts. And, moreover, Renée is wise enough not to overplay it.
I didn't fall in love with Zip Martin. I fell in love with Catcher Block. And that was a year ago, when for three and a half weeks, I worked as your secretary. I don't expect you to remember me. I wasn't a blonde then.
The one unfortuante thing about The Film Experience’s Monday Monologues is that you can't type vocal inflections. In the same way that Barbara Novak is somewhat persona non grata to all men, Zellweger has become increasingly persona non grata to serious film goers. Her limits are palpable and she hasn’t done prime work in some years but she’s a master at comic line readings when at her best. So many would-be throwaway lines in Chicago became legitimate gold from her mouth. Barbara Novak is not her best work, but she’s giving it more than some of her peers would or could.
But you did ask me out. And it broke my heart to say no, but I loved you too much. I couldn't bear to become just another notch in your bedpost. With your dating habits, I knew that even if I was lucky enough...to get a regular spot on your rotating schedule...I would never have your undivided attention long enough for you to fall in love with me. I knew I had to do something to set myself apart.
It’s here Barbara’s “plan” moves from intriguing to truly astonishing in its ambition. As often as I’ve seen this movie, I’m never quite sure if being the able liar she is, Barbara is legitimately making up this entire story on the spot just to disprove Catcher’s claim of having “won” OR if the bizarreness of this masterful long-con is just a larger way of Ahlert and Drake poking fun at the frothy sixties comedies.
I knew I had to quit my job as your secretary...and write an international best-seller controversial enough...to get the attention of a New York publisher as well as "KNOW" magazine...but insignificant enough that as long as I went unseen, "KNOW" magazine's star journalist...would refuse to do a cover story about it. I knew that every time we were supposed to meet, you would get distracted... by one of your many girlfriends and stand me up...and this would give me a reason to fight with you over the phone... and declare that I wouldn't meet with you for a hundred years. And then all I would have to do was be patient and wait...the two or three weeks it would take for everyone in the world...to buy a copy of my best-seller...and then I would begin to get the publicity I would need for you...to, one, see what I look like, and, two, see me denounce you in public...as the worst kind of man. I knew this would make you wanna get even by writing one of your exposés. And in order to do that, you would have to go undercover... assume a false identity and pretend to be the kind of man...who would make the kind of girl I was pretending to be fall in love. Since I was pretending to be a girl who would have sex on the first date...you would have to pretend to be a man who wouldn't have sex for several dates. And in doing so, we would go out on lots of dates...to all the best places and all the hit shows...until finally, one night, you would take me back to your place...that you were pretending was someone else's...in order to get the evidence you needed to write your exposé...by seducing me until I said, "I love you."But saying "I love you" was also my plan. I just wanted to tell you the truth so that when you heard me say, "I love you"... you would know that I knew who you were, and you would know who I was.
Just look at that mass of text. The monologue reads equal parts cumbersome and ingenious. At the end of the 600+ word piece I want to give Renée a prize just for getting through it - in a continuous shot, no less. Luckily, the monologue's threat of unhinging the pro-feminist inclinations of the film (all this for the attention of a man?) is righted one scene later when Barbara/Nancy realises that at the end of the day the respect of her female peers is worth more than this long game to gain Catcher Block’s affection. And, the hilarity of it persists from crafty bits like Barbara's easy belief that she'd write a book so easily to the certainty that of course it would become a bestseller.
Then you, the great Catcher Block... would know that you'd been beaten at your own game...by me, Nancy Brown, your former secretary. And I would have, once and for all, set myself apart... from all the other girls you've known, all those other girls...that you never really cared about, by making myself someone...like the one person you really love and admire...above all others: You. Then, when you realised that you had finally met your match...I would have at last gained the respect... that would make you wanna marry me first and seduce me later.
I love the winsome smile she closes it with. As if to say, "No big deal, I hatch plans and espouse monologues like this everyday." And then, as wrap up, a throwaway line to justify the long confession.
I just wanted you to hear all this from me before you heard it from your private eye.
Sure enough, Catcher Block's private eye calls with the same information a few moments later.
Down with Love has three key superlative saving graces turning it from a trifle into a legitimate enjoyable romp - its perfect soundtrack, some of the finest period costumes of the year (sadly not Oscar nominated) and delightful work from an able cast. All members of the main quartet are a delight: McGregor is dapper, Pierce is adorably bumbling and Sarah Paulson is truly delightful in one of her first major roles. But it’s Zellweger’s show and her ability rescue the film when it threatens to fly off the rails (and for all its charm, it sure does threaten) who is the biggest asset. She’s an especially charming comedienne. It's why I love the idea of having this monologue represent the send-up of Down with Love on its tenth anniversary. The text of it suggests that it shouldn’t work, the way it seems to be at odds with itself also points to one of the film’s own issues – it seems caught between cheering on Catcher’s caddishness and forcing him to change it – but against all odds it manages to sail by because of its leading lady. Barbara Novak may be counterfeit, but Renée's work here is no fake.
The biggest compliment I can give to Down with Love is, at the end, it works because there's a palpable sense that everyone involved is having fun making it. That sort of enthusiasm can do wonders in making a romantic comedy work.
Also, I will forever appreciate this film for the lovely end-tag song “Here’s to Love” which Renée and Ewan croon to perfection – it’s the closest thing we have to Moulin Rouge and Chicago having a baby.It's a shame Peyton Reed hasn't delivered anything as delightful in a decade.
Who else remembers the wild antics of Down with Love fondly?