Set in 1963, the movie opens as Maine author Barbara Novak (Renee Zellweger) arrives in New York City to meet with the publisher of her new book, Down With Love. Accompanied by editor Vicki Hiller (Sarah Paulson), Novak presents the volume, a self-help manual for women, to the publisher's executive team. Using her method, says Novak, the single woman can free herself from the bonds of romantic love and enjoy sex as a man does: a la carte. Predictably, the idea goes over like a lead balloon and the publisher refuses to commit to a big distribution and publicity campaign.
Desperate for her title to be noticed, Novak and Hiller hatch a plot to convince journalist, ladies man and bon vivant Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor) to do a cover story on her for his magazine Know (for men in the know). Though the plan goes awry, Block becomes aware of the attractive, spunky author and hatches a scheme of his own: trick the woman who claims to be immune to romance into falling in love with the city's greatest playboy and then write a shocking expose. In order to accomplish this goal, Block enlists his reluctant editor, Peter MacMannus (David Hyde Pierce.) Block needs MacMannus' apartment in order to assume the identity of a mild-mannered, all-American astronaut and MacMannus needs Block's high-tech bachelor pad so that he can impress the object of his desire, Novak's editor. The ensuing twists and turns are more or less predictable but this should come as no surprise since the movie's strong points are not plot-centric.
The comparison between Down With Love and the Doris Day/Rock Hudson vehicles Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back is inevitable, as Reed borrows liberally from these two films. Though warranted, the comparison is not altogether accurate. Down With Love isn't an homage to those earlier films so much as a re-imagining of them in modern terms.
Unlike Spielberg's Catch Me if You Can, which captured its time and setting so perfectly that one could walk out of the theater almost believing that it was the mid-1960s, Down With Love uses the vocabulary of that era in order to create a uniquely 2K experience. Everything in the picture, from the performances and the cinematography, right through to the costume and set designs is self-aware. The feeling resembles the first Austin Powers movie more than it does the Day and Hudson releases. It's this self-awareness that makes Down With Love more than a simple knock-off. The movie doesn't require you to suspend disbelief. Rather, it presents you with a cotton-candy world, filled with elegant clothing, witty dialogue, tongue-in-cheek techniques (notice in particular the split screens, frequent use of translight backgrounds and rear screen projections) and a brand of joyful, over-the-top acting that Reed established in Bring It On and refines in Down With Love.
Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger dive into their roles with gusto and David Hyde Pierce nearly steals the show with his dead-on comic delivery. The sets and costumes are examples of retro modern at its very best and the dialogue is cheeky and witty without being overly cerebral or going for the easy belly laugh. Down With Love is at times sophisticated, at others sophomoric but always evenly balanced and carefully crafted.
All through Down With Love I kept thinking about the work of well-known illustrator Shag. In his brightly-colored, 60s-inspired visions of tiki lounges, martini bars and swinging jet-setters, Shag offers instant modern nostalgia. No one would mistake Shag's illustrations for authentic 60s artifacts. They're aggressively contemporary in approach, but the milieu is unmistakable. Similarly, rather than trying to be something that it isn't, Down With Love celebrates the carefree, embraces style over substance and revels in the idea that movies with a lowercase 'm' don't have to be anything more than pure, unadulterated entertainment.