That Old Feeling: Doris Day, Rock All Night

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With my usual impeccable timing, I present an extended textual analysis of the movie nobody saw last weekend.

"Nobody," is, technically, a stretch. "Down With Love," a romantic comedy starring Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor, did earn about $7.6 million in its first three days at North American theaters. But "The Matrix Reloaded" took in more than 12 times that amount in the same period. Even the lamentable "Daddy Day Care," in its second week, attracted more patrons.

Which proves, once again, how industry types overestimate the appeal that ironic pastiches of 40- or 50-year-old genres have for today's movie public. Last year, Todd Haynes' "Far from Heaven" extended and upended the plots in the 50s melodramas produced by Ross Hunter and directed by Douglas Sirk ("All That Heaven Allows," "Written on the Wind," "Imitation of Life"). It won lots of critics prizes, and it tanked at the wickets. Now comes "Down With Love," a saucy take on "Pillow Talk" and its genre of no-sex sex comedies that Rock Hudson made with Doris Day, or that each made with other stars, in the early 60s.

The reasons for the box-office failure of these retro romances are abundant. 1: Not many people remember the old movies these new ones are based on. 2: Most of the people who are old enough to remember them do so with more embarrassment than affection. 3: The few who do like them would probably prefer renting a video of the real thing to seeing a snarky interpretation of them. And 4: The minuscule number of people who would care to see a new version of the old movies don't rush to a theater on the opening weekend. They will be at a Senior Citizens' matinee when "Down With Love" hits the $2 theaters next month.


Nevertheless, "Down With Love" has interest, at least for the creaky curator of this column. To begin, it's often funny in the bright, brittle fashion of the better sitcoms. Adult romantic comedy, a defining movie genre for 50 years, is dormant on the big screen; but it still flourishes on the small one, where its practitioners include the "Down With Love" writing team, Eve Ahlert and David Drake. They did time as writer-producers on "Will & Grace."

Ahlert and Drake know they can get away with randier double entendres than the old movies did, so they let McGregor and David Hyde Pierce, as his employer and friend, engage in banter about men's stockings that a secretary outside their office mistakes for penis talk. (Pierce: "How long does a man's hose have to be?" McGregor: "Sixteen inches. [And] I have two!") No question: the rampant sniggering should've earned the movie an R rating, instead of the PG-13 it received. Innuendo goes out the window here. But at least it's cleverer, by about 14 inches, than the potty and penis humor of the "Austin Powers" movies.

The writers did their homework here. "Down With Love" is so clogged with specific references to a half-dozen Rock-and-Doris-type comedies that it serves as definitive distillation of the genre (as we shall itemize, exhaustively, later on). This is apt, because, however naive these films seem today, they were occasionally self-referential: they teasingly alluded to earlier films in the genre. The second Rock-and-Doris comedy, "Lover Come Back" features in its underscoring the song "Inspiration," which Rock had sung three times to different women in "Pillow Talk." And in "That Touch of Mink," Cary Grant wants Gig Young to find a mate for Doris, but Cary's picky. He looked at a list of eligibles for Doris, says Gig, and "He even turned down Rock Hudson."

Ahlert and Drake show a nice understanding of the essential absurdity of romantic comedy plots. When McGregor suddenly pretends to be someone else, even though he is known all over Manhattan, he tells a maitre d': "I'm Major Zip Martin. Spread the word to other doormen, theater owners and taxi drivers." And at the climax of the film, Zellweger launches into the longest, most convoluted explanation of duplicity since the death of Agatha Christie.

I also like the wit of the decor and costumes — a cunning mix of period and parody — as well as a few visual jokes, which may be the work of director Peyton Reed. (Example: we know Zellweger likes McGregor at first sight because her hair-ends flutter, and there's no breeze.) Pierce is on-key in the ineffectual-best-friend role that Tony Randall and Gig Young used to play. From his years on "Frazier," he appreciates the supporting character's poignance: serve the script; serve the star.

Still, as much as "Down With Love" wants to be ever-so-1962, it is locked in 2003 — from its aggressive disapproval of cigarette smoke to the over-exercised tone of the stars' bodies. McGregor, with his ropy slimness and Scots accent, looks to be attempting to channel early Sean Connery (including the line "Something [big] just came up," from an early James Bond film). Odd that he could be so convincing as the innocent in "Moulin Rouge," yet here, with the same huge fake moon hanging over similar penthouse apartments, and the same love-lust he needs to radiate, he can't get inside the character.

The same with Zellweger. The bitter truth is that this once-appealing actress hasn't looked attractive in a film since "Bridget Jones's Diary." She's now prim and puffy, which will be serve her well if she's cast as the middle-aged Hillary Clinton (whom she increasingly resembles) but won't do for her "Down With Love" character, who is told by the first person she meets, "My, you're gorgeous!" Zellweger also wiggles her hips in a few scenes, as if she's Jayne Mansfield trying to be Doris Day. She seems utterly outside and beneath this well-written role. She's not a city girl, wearing the fine material; she's a farm girl, milking it.

"Down With Love" tries hard and honorably to summarize and satirize the "Pillow Talk" films. But it mainly demonstrates a truism that applies to life as much as to movies: The present can't be the past; it can only "do" the past.


Let's see how meticulously "Down With Love" does the old Rock-and-Doris films. Here's the movie's plot [with bracketed annotations that indicate the borrowings from earlier films]:

It's glamorous Manhattan in 1962 — or 1963; the movie isn't sure. Anyway, it's that balmy, blinkered time just before the Beatles, the American "advisers" in Vietnam, the Kennedy assassination, Fellini's "8-1/2" and the demolition of Penn Station ripped holes in the fabric of our complacent post-Eisenhower culture. Barbara Novak (Zellweger) strides out of Grand Central Terminal, across the street to the United Nations Building (which is actually nearly a half-mile away) and past it to the offices of Banner House, which is about to publish her first book. It's called ... "Down With Love," a survey of modern romance that instructs women to divorce sex from love and achieve equality with men — if only they "can enjoy it the way a man does: la carte."

[For comparison, you'll want to see "Sex and the Single Girl"; Ahlert and Davis certainly did. That 1964 frolic, based on the title of Helen Gurley Brown's non-fiction best-seller, is the story of Helen Brown (Natalie Wood), a young woman who has written a Kinseyesque survey called ... "Sex and the Single Girl." Its aim, says the author, is "to help the unmarried women in this country: to stop being ashamed of sex or being single. And I want them to stop behaving like mice and start behaving like men."]

In the lobby, Barbara meets perky Vikki Hiller (Sarah Paulson), a senior editor at Banner House and the guardian angel of Barbara's book. They dash into a meeting of the firm's executive editors. All are men, all are dressed in identically sober suits, all are dismissive of women — including Vikki, whom they peremptorily ask to get them coffee. Their boss is the company's crusty president, Theodore Banner. [Why, it's Tony Randall, now 83, who played Hudson's foil in all three Rock-and-Doris movies. He's the implicit Seal of Approval offered by those films to this one.]

Barbara explains the Three Levels of her book's premise: 1. abstain from men and seek self-pleasure in chocolate; 2. sorry, I forget the second level; and 3. achieve equality with men. The response of Banner and his boys is resistant, belligerent, threatened. [In a similar board room in "The Thrill of It All," Doris has trouble persuading ad-agency executives that she, and not a bimbo starlet favored by the men, should be selling Happy Soap.] But their curiosity is piqued when Barbara explains, "I said when you refrain from love. Not sex." They agree to go ahead with the book.

Cut to another publishing house, for Know Magazine, "for Men in the Know," a racy magazine that apparently blends Playboy with Confidential. [In "Sex and the Single Girl," Tony Curtis is the managing editor of Stop Magazine, whose editors take a perverse pride in being called "the most disgusting scandal sheet the human mind can recall."] Know's owner is the ineffectual neurotic Peter MacMannus (Pierce), who languishes in the shadow of his late father, founder of the firm. [In "Lover Come Back," Randall, who owns an ad agency, is similarly cowed by the memory of his late, founding father.]

Now Peter is ready to dress down his star reporter, Catcher Block (McGregor), for not getting a journalistic scoop; he's heard Catcher was at a Manhattan night club instead of down south on a big story. But as Catcher explains, he got the scoop, with the help of a few lady friends. He knows how to use sex as a lure for business. [In "Lover Come Back," Rock gets a potential client drunk and hooks him up with easy women, thus snatching the new account away from prim Doris' firm.]

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