Ross Hunter, dead seven years, hasn't been this alive at the movies since the 1950s and '60s, when he produced some of the weepiest melodramas and cheeriest romantic comedies ever to barely stick to the screen. His ghost has been wandering up and down the aisles ever since Don Simpson was still snorting formula -- it was Hunter who created, more or less, money-shot cinema with 1970's Airport -- but of late, his influence grows. Hunter produced virtually all of Douglas Sirk's hankie-pankies throughout the '50s, among them Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows -- the templates for Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, which made explicit all the man-on-man action and jungle fever Hollywood didn't allow back then. And it was Hunter who, perhaps as a reaction to Sirk's autumnal gloom, made the movies bright and cheery with the sunshine faces of Sandra Dee and Doris Day, pets in his stable alongside stud Rock Hudson, who bridged the gap between Sirk's tear-soaked spectacles and the faaaaab-ulousness of Pillow Talk and The Thrill of It All.
Hunter -- who, like Hudson, was gay but never stepped out of the closet without a woman on each arm -- claimed he made movies for hausfraus seeking escape from their gray-flannel husbands and 2.4 children in the suburbs. He made pictures that shined in a way real life, and the kitchen floors, didn't; he knew his movies were mediocre but didn't care, insisting that he gave the public what they wanted -- "a chance to dream, to live vicariously, to see beautiful women, jewels, gorgeous clothes, melodrama." Yet no matter their vacuousness, their varnished gloss, Hunter's movies never condescended to the audience; they never winked, never pretended to be a mere Playboy party joke -- which is precisely why Down With Love, which strives to be to Pillow Talk what Far From Heaven was to All That Heaven Allows, is such a disaster: It winks so hard that it lapses right into a coma.
Renée Zellweger has been cast in the Doris Day role as proto-women's-libber Barbara Novak, whose bestseller Down With Love promotes the ideology that sex for women can be far more pleasurable without the romantic attachment; she's the Carrie Bradshaw of the early '60s, a girl who wants the dinner without the breakfast afterward and instructs ladies to act like men and treat their men like dogs. This doesn't sit well with journalist Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor), an Esquire man with Playboy After Dark sensibilities who keeps dodging his cover-story interview with Barbara to frolic with women, mostly stewardesses in the jet-set age who are happy to be kept on a leash. Novak threatens his way of life on the rocks and over easy, but once he discovers she's actually cute as an Oscar nominee, he sets about playing dumb to expose her as fraud, which is redundant in a movie filled with fakes to begin with.
Director Peyton Reed, who knows a thing or half about putting the question mark in period pieces, having remade The Love Bug and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes for television certainly gets the look right. Down With Love looks cobbled together from Jackie Kennedy's daywear and James Bond's evening attire; it's bright pink and pastel blue contrasted against a charcoal-and-horn-rim backdrop, and so damned flaxen it renders the Legally Blonde franchise pointless. But the set pieces lose their luster quickly, and the fetishism -- a place for everything retro and everything retro in its place, including a cameo by Tony Randall -- blends into the background. The movie's so arch it kisses its own ass in congratulation.
Far From Heaven likewise looked the part -- it was as autumnal as Thanksgiving in Connecticut -- but Haynes (who directed McGregor in Velvet Goldmine, and the circle is complete) populated his picture with flesh-and-blood folk who spoke the language of the recognizable, painful everyday. Haynes' movie stood on its own with the crutch of homage; it played as commentary but succeeded without prior knowledge of its point of reference. Reed, working from a rinky-dink screenplay by Dennis Drake and Eve Ahlert (the writers of Legally Blonde 2, duh), gives us only props on a sound stage whose every utterances are double-entendres that generate not a single laugh. (And like Far From Heaven, Down With Love tries to make explicit the homo subtext but winds up only cracking limp gay jokes.) The cast, including David Hyde Pierce as Catcher's editor and Sarah Paulson as Barbara's, work so hard to please that it's astonishing they don't suffer a group aneurysm. They're sitcom characters, talking at each other (and down to us) but never with one another; this is no commentary, and barely even a comedy, but a TV pilot shot in CinemaScope and reduced to fit the small screen. Ross Hunter would not be pleased: Escapism shouldn't have you scrambling for the nearest exit.