Down with Love (review)

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What a Girl Wants

Item! Who’d have thought that today, in swingin’, happenin’ 1962, we’d have to report that New York’s most confirmed bachelor, Know magazine writer Catcher Block, has been seen gadding about town with none other than women’s libber Barbara Novak, author of the anti-romance book Down With Love. Who’s kiddin’ who here, kids? Item! Was that Know editor Peter MacMannus tête-à-têting over lunch with Banner Publishing’s Vikki Hiller? What’s with all the love in the air? It’s like we’ve fallen into some wonderfully silly Doris Day / Rock Hudson flick, all glorious Technicolor and shaken martinis.

*sigh* Oh, for the days when the cads wore tuxes, had delicious accents, and were as all-around scrumptious as Ewan McGregor. What’s a 21st-century gal to do, faced with cigar-chomping ex-frat boy stockbroker assholes who think they’re sophisticated, and Man Show-watchin’, bikini-inspectin’, Maxim-readin’ doods who’re proud they aren’t? Of course I use the word “reading” loosely.

Not that I’d really want to turn the clock back to an era when the only things women were good for was making the coffee and preserving their virginity. Bor-rrring. But the kind of romantic jape that Down With Love is — the hey-men-are-jerks-so-let’s-meet-them-on-their-own-ground kind — could only have been set in a world that never existed except onscreen 40 years ago. I mean, “feminist” is a dirty word these days, and “female empowerment” means everything from cutely leaving a succession of fiancés standing at the altar to being adorably clumsy to behaving like a real bitch. As The Onion pointed out recently, everything women do is now empowering, so how on earth can an empowered women make her mark as, you know, a woman deliberately trying to let you know she’s empowered?

Ya gotta rewind to before we all got confused about the differences between what a girl wants and what a girl’s supposed to want. So we get sweet and spunky Renée Zellweger (Chicago, White Oleander), who’s allowed — by virtue of the fact that this is a pretend 1962 seen through the knowing eyes of 2003 — to be kinda ditzy and so smart (in the end) that you want to cheer her, to be delicately feminine, in her endless candy-colored wardrobe, and demandingly, bitch-on-wheels sexy. Doris Day could never have been so bold as Zellweger’s Barbara Novak, who actually comes out and uses the s-e-x word to a roomful of silverback early-1960s males, the publishers of her book about s-e-x and the single girl. But Barbara instead serves both as a surprisingly shocking reminder to us today of how far we’ve come in attitudes about women — and in women’s attitudes about themselves — and how little has really changed. (We can talk about sex — and talk and talk and talk about it — and even have it, but don’t expect to get your birth control bills on the insurance company’s tab, missy.) The wonderful hatted-and-gloved costumes and the beautiful soundstage-bound sets and the glorious rear-projection and the catchy lounge-y soundtrack are all good fun on their own, true, but none of the rest of it would have worked without them. How could we in 2003 be startled to hear Barbara proclaim that all a woman needs is no-strings orgasms and a powerful career when everything and anything goes? Stay at home with the baby, go back to work and put the kid in day care, use a condom, reclaim your virginity, dress like a slut, dress like a nun — it’s all good, whatever makes you happy. Which is all fine — choice is fine — but it makes it hard to make a statement. Barbara makes a statement.

And Catcher Block hears it loud and clear, and is afraid. Playboy and bon vivant, he doesn’t like this new distinction between “good girls” and “bad girls.” He’s going to trap Barbara, make her fall in love with him — which no proper Down With Love girl would do; she’d just use him for sex — and then expose her in the pages of Know magazine, a sort of forerunner to Maxim, so sure it knows the full extent of what women want, heh. And he plans to do it by acting like a traditional woman, refusing sex to this sexually aggressive woman — a punishment, surely, when he’s so dashing and desirable — but dangling the promise of it in front of her so she’ll hang around long enough to fall head over heels. McGregor (Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, Moulin Rouge) dishes out Catch’s irresistibility with a spoon — of course she must fall for him. Right?

Stretching stereotypes to absurd extremes could only work when lots of men and women conformed to the types, and reversing them is really all about balance, of course, about embracing the masculine and the feminine in us all. Which, as we drift toward extremes again, from Maxim on the one end and “the new abstinence” on the other, is probably something we need to hear.

Oh, and martinis: we all need martinis, too.

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