Down with Love‘s Searing Satire Was Too Smart to Succeed

Movies Features Renee Zellweger
Down with Love‘s Searing Satire Was Too Smart to Succeed

Twenty years ago, Warner Bros. dropped The Matrix Reloaded. Perhaps the most anticipated movie of the summer, the first sequel to the 1999 cybersmash was no doubt going to be the number-one movie that weekend. The major studios didn’t even bother with something that could go up against that inevitable box-office behemoth. Well, all except one. 20th Century Fox did release a film that was the complete opposite of the Wachowskis’ futuristic actioner, but no less ambitious. And it was a rom-com

In Down with Love, Renée Zellweger—already seen as a rom-com queen after starring in the monster-hit adaptation of Bridget Jones’s Diary—plays Barbara Novak, a “farmer’s daughter librarian” from Maine who comes to New York, circa 1962, to publish the titular book. It’s a feminist manifesto that encourages women to break free from the shackles of love (but not sex), so they can be independent girl-bosses. (This includes consuming chocolate.) 

When the book becomes a success, she uses her newfound fame to go after charming cads like Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor), a dashing journalist/playboy who stood her up when they had an interview date. As her influence starts to get in the way of his womanizing, he launches a counterattack: He schemes to get Novak to fall in love with him by posing as Major Zip Martin, a chaste astronaut with a Southern drawl. (And, yes, he comes up with the name while he and Novak meet at a dry-cleaning shop.)

Down with Love has to be the ballsiest “chick flick” to come out of the early 2000s. In an age when modern-day, slapsticky love stories were still seen as viable money-makers (a few months before, the Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey date movie How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days made over $170 million worldwide), Down with Love dared to take us back to that oh-so-colorful time for rom-coms: The early ‘60s. The movie is a straight-up salute to the Doris Day and Rock Hudson comedies Pillow Talk (which won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay), Lover Come Back and Send Me No Flowers. But it also gives nods to such kitschy, cinematic meet-cutes as Sex and the Single Girl and That Touch of Mink (which paired up Day with Cary Grant, who headlined a lot of romantic screwball comedies in his prime). As Time critic Richard Corliss wrote in his review, it’s “clogged with specific references to a half-dozen Rock-and-Doris-type comedies that it serves as definitive distillation of the genre.” Even Tony Randall, who played Hudson’s envious sidekick in the Day-Hudson films, does a wink-wink supporting turn as the head of the publishing house.

In a ridiculous but still respectful way, Down with Love sends up those ‘60s “sex comedies” (and the contemporary rom-coms as well) where a man and woman basically mind-fuck and gaslight one another to the point where they realize they’re made for each other. With the sexual revolution just around the corner, ready to put a monkey wrench in a lot of male chauvinists’ plans, Down with Love amps up and ridicules the everyday misogyny and absurd, male-driven paranoia that these films (written, produced and directed by men) flagrantly but fragrantly gave off back then.

Director Peyton Reed (who would go on to make the Ant-Man movies) rounded up a team to pull out all the visual stops, from production designer Andrew Laws’ so-fake-it’s-fantastic Big Apple to costume designer Daniel Orlandi’s awe-inspiring outfits (especially for Zellweger) that would make Edith Head proud. 

And Reed found a game pair in Zellweger and McGregor. The stars play their dueling lovebirds with the straightest of photogenic faces, even when they say dialogue that is pure WTF. Zellweger gives a one-take, three-minute monologue that’s so brilliant and batshit-crazy that I’m shocked it’s not taught in acting classes. Reed also cast David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Paulson as McGregor and Zellweger’s dedicated BFFs. (Getting two actors who would later come out as proudly LGBTQ just adds more sparkle to Down with Love’s visibly queer subtext.)

Working from a hella cheeky script by sitcom scribes Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake, Reed playfully indulges in the naughty double entendres, innuendo-filled dialogue and visual gags that made those ‘60s films such ribald crowd-pleasers. Pillow has an iconic, split-screen scene where Day and Hudson flirtatiously converse on the phone while soaking in their respective bathtubs, their feet somehow touching each other when they press them up the bath tiles. Reed one-ups that scene with his own split-screen sequence, where Zellweger and McGregor find ways to look like they’re getting it on while talking on the phone. (The scene looks like it was more inspired by the randy sight gags Mike Myers created for those Austin Powers movies.) 

As you might’ve guessed, Down with Love wasn’t a success. With a budget of $35 million, it only grossed $39.5 million. Yeah, it went up against a Matrix movie, which predictably steamrolled over it on opening weekend. (McGregor certainly felt the movie was poorly rolled out by Fox.) But it’s also a comedy about an era in film history that younger audiences probably aren’t that familiar with. When former Vanity Fair columnist James Wolcott wrote about his love for the Day-Hudson trilogy in 2000, he also admitted that those films are square, dated, problematic relics: “…what could seem more out of cultural sync, more Republican, than the romantic comedies of Doris Day and Rock Hudson?” Even if it came out at another point in the year, it still would’ve been a big gamble to release such a specifically satirical film and hope that audiences would be sophisticated enough to get all the jokes and references, right down to the old-school Fox logo and the “A CinemaScope Release” credit that begins the movie.

Nevertheless, Down with Love has become something of a campy cult fave. Scholars, podcasters and YouTubers have hailed it as a queer masterpiece. In a recent New York Times salute, Beatrice Loayza says she’s seen it projected on nightclub walls and at Valentine’s Day screenings in Brooklyn, an ironic anti-date movie for the savvy, sexually fluid audiences of today. 

It’s kinda wild that a tongue-in-cheek rom-com, directed by a straight white dude from North Carolina, is more appreciated by the LGBTQ crowd than the follow-up to one of the most dudebro-friendly movies ever made, directed by two trans sisters.

Craig D. Lindsey is a Houston-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @unclecrizzle.

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