I Hear America Smirking

  • Smirk. Was the word invented in 1959, or did it just bloom into popular consciousness to describe the tone of the Rock Hudson — Doris Day comedy Pillow Talk? That film and its myriad spawn populated the screen with horny men in need of domesticating and bouncy career gals who wore chastity belts beneath their Jean Louis frocks. At a time when Hollywood could still only hint at promiscuity, these movies sublimated their animal urges in the classic farce techniques of innuendo and mistaken identity. If their winks were as subtle as the drop of an anvil, and if their nudges could break a rib, they nonetheless kept America smiling, or smirking, until the sexual revolution exploded later, in the '60s.

    Now that Americans are allowed, indeed obliged, to be hedonists, this old take on the mating game has a creaky charm. Hence Down with Love, a pastiche of antique moral codes and Populuxe decor. The new film is conflicted about its subject — it both derides and adores what it means to parody — and it's miscast at the top. Still, the Eve Ahlert — Dennis Drake script has a gentle heart to humanize its sharp sitcom wit.

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    Jan. 17, 2004

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    Barbara Novak (Renee Zellweger), author of the best-selling semifeminist screed Down with Love, is on a collision course with rakish journalist Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor). She thinks he's a pig; he thinks she's a prig. Abetted by their respective editors, Vikki Hiller (Sarah Paulson) and Peter MacMannus (David Hyde Pierce), they parry, gavotte and dissemble: Catcher pretends to be a rube astronaut; Barbara pretends to be...well, we can't give away the plot!

    Scholars of this minor comedy form will detect a blend of Pillow Talk (to humiliate prim decorator Doris, playboy Rock masquerades as a sweet-natured Texan) and Sex and the Single Girl (to humiliate prim sex-book author Natalie Wood, magazine writer Tony Curtis feigns being a frustrated husband seeking counseling). Now as then, the two leads must run the gamut of passion, rancor and against-their-wills romance — all in glam Manhattan penthouses (Barbara's digs were inspired by the How to Marry a Millionaire set), where the not-quite lovers swig martinis to the underscoring of wisecracking trombones.

    Director Peyton Reed (Bring It On) too often uses a gong where chimes would do, and his split-screen double entendres would have got Rock and Doris arrested. But Pierce is a perfect Tony Randall mimic in the hero's-pal role, down to the defeated slouch and the baritone whining. The film's costumes and design have a giddily precise exaggeration to them. And stay for the movie's denouement: a two-minute speech that wraps up the plot like Christmas ribbons around a time bomb.

    The alas comes with the two stars. Zellweger is photographed to look bloated, and tries too hard to make it all look easy. McGregor seems to be auditioning for the next James Bond movie, but as a teenage Sean Connery. We're tempted to call for an instant remake of Down with Love, with new leads: Reese Witherspoon, who has a classic comedienne's deja vu perkiness (and, in Legally Blonde, much the same couture) and, well, maybe Ben Affleck.

    As you see, we too are conflicted about this film. We want to love it, but like a Rock Hudson rake, we keep finding fault in its allure. We want to hate it, but like Doris Day, we finally can't say no.