Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon May 26, 2003 11:47 pm 
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Down with parody

I sat through all of Down with Love. People in the audience were loving it. I didn't get that into it and I must say, Doris Day and Rock Hudson may not have made wonderful movies, but the kind of movies they made required a greater degree of physical perfection than Ewan McGregor and Renée Zellweger, talented though they may be, happen to possess. When poor Renée struts around in those tight, eye-catching outfits, as happened also, I fear, in Chicago, it calls attention to certain physical attributes that she all too conspicuously lacks. And, come to think of it, in this day of young hunks with perfect teeth, McGregor doesn't need to be in so many scenes where he takes off his shirt and smiles with wide-open mouth. Let's not forget that he first came to us quite well cast as a down-and-out Brit in the last stages of heroin addiction. He's become ever more accomplished as an actor but he hasn't changed his physical equipment, or, it would appear, invested in cosmetic dentistry. A movie that dwells lovingly on its stars should have stars who are really pleasing to stare at. Doris Day and Rock Hudson knew what they were supposed to be and they carried themselves with a hard edge of perfection -- for all their fakery and innocence, or fakery of innocence -- that this movie's stars lack.

On the other hand the sets and visuals are if anything too perfect, and far too busy. The only thing wrong about the charming opening credits in Saul-Bass-to-the-nth style is that the imitation is tone deaf: nobody in the Sixties did quite such complicated stuff. The aim is to out-Sixties the Sixties, to succeed by excess. The more understated version of the same kind of thing was better in Catch Me If You Can. For all their cuteness, Sixties graphics had a minimalism and restraint that Down with Love lacks in every respect. The women's outfits, and for that matter the men's, threaten to overpower the sets and dialogue, except where we are trapped in a bachelor "pad" with a dangerous electronic bed and a record turntable that shoots its burden of vinyl disks out into the room and smashes them into the wall. In the world of Matrix Reloaded no doubt such noisy but small special effects are regarded as the ultimate in restraint: they aren't. The split screen dialogue in which McGregor and Zellweger appear to be humping or fellating each other, on the other hand, isn't just overdone, but tasteless. Nothing elegant here. The Doris Day comedies weren't about costumes and special effects. They were just glossy studio productions: they weren't so overproduced. Todd Haynes's Far from Heaven fell into the same trap in evoking the Fifties: the mise-en-scene was so vivid and overdone it walked away with the movie: even the leaves on the trees threatened to float out into the theater.

Any such complication sinks a parody. A Doris Day comedy is about what happens, not about the trappings. And the writers don't seem to take all that seriously enough to make it work as satire. And by the way: what is there to satirize that isn't already absurd in the material being revisited? Down with Love comes off as an imitation -- by people who aren't steeped enough in the material to get it quite right -- rather than a send-off.

It's the simplest things that work in the movie. I love it when McGregor plays Astronaut and puts on that heavy southern drawl. That's all the special effect we need, and a couple of simple props like a pair of specs and a pipe go a long way. It's jarring when he goes back to his "real" accent and it's that heavy Scottish brogue--something Doris Day never had to deal with, nor should we. And yes, I love it when Ewan does his seducer's tight hipped walk, and even when Renée does her strut and arches her back, despite the way it reveals certain fatal shortcomings in her endowment, as well as in her perception of the character she is playing, who should be a mass of coquettishness and shyness a la Marilyn. It seems Renée or her handlers dream of her becoming a Marilyn clone: Chicago and her photo shoot for a recent Interview magazine point that way. But it cannot be. Renée was best at characters more ditzy and confused than Marilyn, without wiles: her high points so far have been Bridget Jones's Diary (where she does a far better English accent than Ewan's American one) and Nurse Betty. Like this movie, she's being overproduced. I hope she cuts back and finds herself again. McGregor's forte is in being ingratiating, as in Moulin Rouge. In Down with Love he's too sure of himself to be as charming as he really is.

The fact is that Down with Love tries too hard in every category, but without doing the homework, and without finding the right stars. I guess it's no surprise that the "surprise" at the end about Renée's true identity just confuses the issue. We know she and Ewan have both been pretending to be someone no human being could really be and we don't need any revelation of true identity. What we need is a revelation of true feeling. We want the idea of Barbara Novak's best-selling book smashed to smithereens; we want Catcher Block's Hefneresque crust to fall away. It doesn't happen. How could it? It's no surprise that when the pair come together at the end we don't feel anything. They didn't work up any chemistry in their roles earlier either, and the dialogue wasn't fast and funny enough to reveal an undercurrent of passion. They're just sticks on a fancy set.

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