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There's no there there to satirize

'Down With Love' spoofs Hudson-Day films, which were airless even then.

May 16, 2003|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

Starting in 1959, over the course of five years and three movies, Hollywood's most famous closeted homosexual made love to Hollywood's favorite symbolic virgin, entertaining multitudes as legions of Miles Davis listeners and Norman Mailer readers shuddered to their core. The only people who took the Doris Day and Rock Hudson pairings seriously were the executives who reaped a profit and such touchingly naive pop consumers as my aunt, who once expressed heartfelt regret that her favorite performer, Liberace, had never married.

A Technicolor folly stretched to CinemaScope specifications, the world of those Day and Hudson movies was also the product of a studio system deep in its senescence. John Cassavetes directed his first feature the same year that Day and Hudson's "Pillow Talk" hit Eisenhower's America, but Hollywood, reluctant to face either its imminent end or fast-changing reality, instead retreated into a past so innocent it never existed.

A parody of those old Day-Hudson films, the new comedy "Down With Love" stars Renee Zellweger as the sort of sensible career girl Day perfected, brimming with health and untapped sexual possibility, who swoons into the clutches of a granite-jawed paragon of heterosexuality -- then embodied by Hudson, now by Ewan McGregor.

Fresh from the boondocks, Zellweger's Barbara Novak is a first-time author who, with the help of a female editor, Vikki (Sarah Paulson), has landed in New York City clutching a book contract for a manifesto about gender equality. Barbara believes that if women enter the workplace, abstain from romantic love and indulge in sex like men ("a la carte," as she breathily puts it) while sublimating with copious amounts of chocolate, they will achieve parity with men. After the book takes off, launching a revolution in kitchens across the globe, male-magazine hotshot Catcher "Catch" Block (McGregor), in league with his publisher, Peter (David Hyde Pierce, nicely filling in for Hudson's regular sidekick, Tony Randall), engineers a deceit to prove Barbara and her declaration of independence wrong.

The war between the sexes was the fulcrum of the Day-Hudson comedies. In "Pillow Talk," Day plays an interior decorator who shares a party line with Hudson's Broadway composer. She scorns him as a crude Lothario, and he mocks her as a shriveled prune until he sees the way she fills out a slinky gown. Deeply corny, airless as a tomb and rarely as funny as you likely remember, the whole thing would be hopeless if not for the stars. Both actors had been through plenty -- he was stuck in the closet, she endured an abusive marriage -- and perhaps because each was accustomed to keeping up a front, they made ideal co-conspirators. Their chaste pantomime wasn't just as self-consciously phony as the cartoon optimism that made a lie out of every line in the script, it was the key to the collaborative charm.

"Down With Love" director Peyton Reed gets the film's look and, in moments, its disingenuous innocence, but you have to wonder what he and the screenwriters, Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake, thought they were parodying. The actors clearly haven't a clue. McGregor sharks around agreeably, flashing his teeth at a game Hyde Pierce, but there's something uncertain about the performance, as if he can't find his footing. Zellweger looks even more ill at ease pretending that the world (and Catch) is her oyster. Zellweger lets her guard down better than most actresses, and she does it without a trace of the neurotic heat that characterizes open-vein actresses such as Jennifer Jason Leigh and Samantha Morton. But she doesn't have Day's resiliency, which enabled Hudson's jokes to bounce off her so well, or that glorious way of moving across a room.

Day held her head high, like a sentry guarding the fortress, but below the neck she moved like the singer she was, each part in synchronous harmony. That mix of nice and naughty defined her appeal, but like Hudson, she was a prisoner of her time. No matter how dark she went, her persona remained necessarily sunny. That synthetic innocence, which defined her movies with Hudson, must have been catnip to the "Down With Love" filmmakers, reared like the rest of us on an endless supply of pop-culture camp. But for satire to work, the lampooned material has to have a degree of seriousness, however spurious. Trying to send up a movie as self-consciously artificial as "Pillow Talk" is like deploying a double negative: the satires cancel each other out.

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