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Down With Love

"The words 'Doris Day' get a reaction, often adverse," John Updike wrote over 25 years ago, upon publication of Doris Day: Her Own Story, which was about the last time we heard anything from this much-maligned movie star. Today, the reaction might well be "Doris who?" The living embodiment of postwar cheeriness, Day is best remembered for a trio of chaste sex comedies she made with Rock Hudson back in the late-'50s and early-'60s: Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back and Send Me No Flowers. And although she was relentlessly cheerful in all of them, that doesn't begin to explain her appeal, then or now. For Day had the rare ability to make wholesomeness seem sexy. There was that voice, for one thing ' a sultry contralto. (She'd started out as a singer in the big-band era.) And then there was that...caboose, a derriere made for CinemaScope. The rest of the train wasn't too bad, either.

Day was in her mid-to-late 30s when she strapped on the chastity belt to play opposite Hudson, prompting Oscar Levant's famous line: "I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin." And the sexual revolution, which was about to wash over America, would leave her stranded on the shoals of Eisenhower-Kennedy innocence ' a you-can-look-but-you-better-not-touch anachronism. "Que sera sera," she may well have told herself, retiring from the screen soon thereafter and devoting the rest of her life to finding homes for lost dogs. But I wonder whether she's ever gotten enough credit for the role she did play in the sexual revolution ' for knocking on doors that other women would walk through. Her characters may not have gotten laid all that often, but they sure did think about it a lot. Furthermore, they were usually career gals who happened to have other things on their minds.

All of this is by way of introducing Down With Love, Peyton Reed's tongue-in-cheek homage to the Hudson/Day comedies. At least, I think it's tongue in cheek. After Far From Heaven and A Mighty Wind, I'm losing my ability to judge where tongue in cheek ends and heart on sleeve begins. Set in 1962, the movie also tries to pass itself off as having been made in 1962 ' a long-lost title found collecting dust on the bottom shelf of some film archive. Why somebody would want to make a movie that looks and sounds exactly like a movie that came out over 40 years ago is a question for future doctoral candidates. I'm still scratching my head over Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot remake of Psycho ' the ultimate in cinematic misappropriation. And about the only justification I can offer for doing it this time is that Down With Love is such a fizzy, fun experience, 98 minutes of pink champagne.

Although nobody seemed to think so at the time, Doris Day and Rock Hudson have become cinematic icons, which is another way of saying I wouldn't want to try to fill those shoes. But Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor make up for any lack of star power ' Zellweger being not as pretty as Day, McGregor being not as preposterously handsome as Hudson ' with the sheer commitment they display toward recapturing the past. Zellweger doesn't seem like Doris Day so much as a young Teri Garr, although without Garr's loopy timing. Likewise, McGregor doesn't seem like Rock Hudson so much as Frank Sinatra or Sean Connery, although with a rather high-pitched voice. Both actors are coming off musicals (Chicago and Moulin Rouge), so they have no trouble finding the rhythms and melodies of early-'60s line deliveries ' the artificiality that didn't seem any less artificial back then.

The plot loosely follows Pillow Talk, minus the party line. (Remember party lines?) This time, it's a book that brings our lovebirds together, a pink-covered manifesto called Down With Love, which appears to be the opening skirmish in the renewed battle of the sexes. Zellweger's Barbara Novak, a farmer's daughter and a librarian, wrote it in order to free women from their chains of love but mostly in order to take New York, and therefore the world, by storm. But she needs McGregor's Catcher Block, a playboy/journalist with one of those push-button bachelor pads, to seal the deal. A cover story by "Catch" in Know magazine would launch Barbara into the big time. The only problem is, he's way too busy catting around to find time for what he assumes is a lonely, homely spinster. Then, across a room, he gets a look at the new pussycat in town, who's sipping on Manhattan like it was a saucer of milk. Meow.

By this point, Barbara has grown to loathe Catch, although she's never seen him. So Catch hatches a plan to impersonate a sexually naÃve astronaut from the South, which will allow him to both win Barbara's heart and expose her as a fraud. That it also allows McGregor to adopt one of the worst Southern accents this side of Buckingham Palace is like icing on the cake. Anyway, we're off to the races, launched on a sexual farce that's surprisingly well written and directed. Scripters Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake have managed to bring fresh wit to that stale device, the double entendre. And director Reed, who caused many of us to rethink our positions on cheerleading in the enjoyable Bring It On, brings it on all over again, reveling in the artifice of early-'60s filmmaking ' the painted backdrops, the rear projections, the split screens. Meanwhile, composer Marc Shaiman adds little exclamation points to everything.

In one of the many phone sequences, Reed uses both vertical and horizontal split screens to suggest sexual positions that may not have even occurred to the sleepy heads in Pillow Talk. Otherwise, the movie plays it straight, for the most part. Even David Hyde Pierce, who has the Tony Randall role (so that's who he's always reminded me of), turns out to be straight ' his character does, anyway. The Hudson/Day comedies were rife with gay innuendo, all but outing Hudson 25 years before AIDS got the job done. And if Reed were into revisionism, Ã la Far From Heaven, this would have been one way to go, turning the subtext into text. But, other than allowing Zellweger to say and do things that Day couldn't, he seems content to wallow in the clothes, the hairstyles, the swank apartments, the his-and-her versions of "Fly Me to the Moon." And as long as the champagne kept its fizz, I was content to wallow with him.

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