Spring is in the air, when a moviegoer’s thoughts turn naturally to romance. If innocent fun is your idea of innocent fun, you’ll find plenty in Down with Love, Peyton Reed’s affectionate spoof of the Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedies. Set in the Manhattan of 1962, the movie stars Rene Zellweger as Barbara Novak, a Helen Gurley Brown-esque pop writer whose bestseller, Down with Love, promises to liberate women by teaching them “to live life the way a man does,” dispensing with love and enjoying sex “‡ la carte.” Enter men’s magazine journalist-and incorrigible playboy-Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor), the self-anointed “ladies’ man, man’s man, and man about town,” who sets out to demolish Novak’s act. Affecting a cornpone twang and posing as, of all things, an astronaut, he plots to make her fall hopelessly in love with him, exposing her liberated Down with Love philosophy as a fraud.

Even more than Far from Heaven, last year’s revival of 1950s melodrama, Down with Love is a designer’s heaven, in which the real stars are the sets and costumes. Pillbox hats, white gloves, and an outlandish color palette of lime and orange-and, of course, pink-set a buoyant retro style that is part Jackie Kennedy, part mid-1960s Mod. There’s something deeply welcoming in Down with Love’s campy look and feel. It’s cinematic comfort food, right from the opening credits, with cartoon hearts bursting out of champagne bubbles, set to the sparky romantic duet of the title song and its invocation to banish love-“give it back to the birds and the bees / And the Viennese.” Director Reed and his writers have scripted a silliness so exuberant, you keep expecting the characters to burst into song. When Catcher plots a new article with his editor, the two dance across the office to a shimmering bossa nova; and when Novak and her editor enter a posh restaurant for lunch, they do so in matching dresses, sashaying like runway models. Down with Love may inaugurate a new genre: a musical without singing.

The script’s many double-entendres spoof the days when romantic comedy was a game with Hollywood’s censorship codes. At Novak’s apartment we overhear her exclaiming off-camera, “I’ve done this before, but never with such a powerful instrument!”-as we pan across the room to see her with Catcher out on the balcony, peering through a telescope. There’s also an elaborately choreographed split-screen phone chat that juxtaposes the couple doing various things in their separate apartments, creating inadvertent naughtiness. With its fake moons and fantasy Broadway montages, its futuristic bachelor pads, its cool lounge music and lushly orchestrated violin swoons, Down with Love envelops us in the fond fairy-tale world of movies circa 1960. What a breezy, silly, and charming piece of fun.

If romance in those old comedies was a spirited tennis match, in Neil LaBute’s movies it is germ warfare. You may recall LaBute’s darkly nasty first film, In the Company of Men (1997), in which two buddies play a humiliating prank on a deaf woman whom both pretend to court, then unceremoniously dump. Was the film a brilliant attack on misogyny, or was it simply misogyny?

LaBute’s new film, The Shape of Things, follows a pair of college students, Adam (Paul Rudd) and Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), whose romance begins in the college art museum, where he’s working as a security guard when she arrives, can of spray paint in hand, to deface a male statue whose genital-covering fig leaf she loathes for its bowdlerizing propriety. Evelyn is a performance artist, working on a thesis project she never discloses. Meanwhile, she seduces the roly-poly Adam and takes on the challenge of remaking him, getting him to lose weight, lose the bulky corduroy jacket, even get a nose job-playing Higgins to his Eliza, as the inner stud emerges from the chrysalis of the hapless nerd. The key to these elusive rules of attraction lies in a “surprise” plot turn you’ve probably guessed by now. This variation on the Pygmalion myth wants us to know that women can do gratuitous cruelty just as well as men.

LaBute has adapted the movie from his own play, and it feels static, burdened with stationary camera shots and dialogue-heavy scenes that not even the soundtrack’s snazzy Elvis Costello tunes can redeem. The real disaster is its didactic, sophomoric view of human nature, in which a shallow misanthropy masquerades as deep insight. There’s something woefully adolescent about everything LaBute does: his cutely overt symbolisms (Adam and Evelyn!), his “transgressive” mixing of high-lit references and potty-mouthed expletives, and on and on. An undercurrent of sadism makes his movies vaguely pornographic; and while at first you may think your discomfort arises from the hard truths of the material, sooner or later you realize it’s LaBute himself-his contempt for his own characters, and for his audience too. In a closing shot, Evelyn aims two raised middle fingers to the camera. That pretty much sums it up.

Interestingly, religious media critics have proved susceptible to LaBute’s meretricious provocations. The Christian Science Monitor calls The Shape of Things “a disturbing deconstruction... of the complex relationships among art, ethics, and honesty,” while the film office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops lauds how LaBute “subverts the Pygmalion story, employing cerebral dialogue, pitch-black wit, and a disturbingly manipulative narrative to explore the subjectivity of perception and society’s fascination with surface appearances.” The poor bishops’ reviewer! Everyone’s so busy being disturbed, they lose sight of what’s truly disturbing in LaBute’s work, namely, its total disdain for anything remotely human. His movies have a schematic clarity that reduces characters to mere lines of force, puppets on a string. Beware the filmmaker whose devastating insights into human nature mask an inability to portray a single real person.

Real people-and their conflicting desires-are the subject of Blue Car, a small, deft film whose complexities draw you in as surely as LaBute’s simplifications push you away. Writer-director Karen Moncrieff begins her study of adolescent turmoil with a voice-over of a girl reading a hauntingly sad poem. The lines, we learn, were written by Meg (Agnes Bruckner), a high school student caught in a desperate family breakup. With an absconded father, a suicidal little sister, and a mother overwhelmed by the demands of supporting the family alone, Meg clings to poetry like a life raft, pouring her fears and hopes into the pages of her notebook. Desperate to fill the hole in her life-the title refers to the car her father drove off in-she’s drawn to Mr. Auster (David Strathairn), a popular English teacher. Auster is instantly recognizable, the kind of handsome middle-aged teacher whose polished wit contains a reserve, a formality, that hints at something unfulfilled. “He’s supposed to have won some writing prize a long time ago,” a friend confides to Meg; a leather notebook he carries is said to hold his unfinished novel. Auster, we guess, has put a few demons to sleep over the years, and this precocious, beautiful, and needy girl is waking them up.

Blue Car turns a close focus on the unfolding of an intimacy that holds equal potential for help and harm. Auster coaches Meg privately in poetry, prepping her for a national contest. “Great poets touch the hidden nerve,” he says, urging her to write about the day her father left. In return, he confides how he felt at the death of his young son a few years back. On Meg’s startled face we see how flattering it is-how thrilling-to be taken into his confidence. It’s a disturbing scene that nails the erotic potential of teaching, how closely it can parallel seduction. Strathairn is that rare actor with both heroes and villains on his resume, and in Blue Car he gets to be both. Actually, if there’s a villain in Moncrieff’s view of things, it’s divorce. She paints a grim portrait of divorce’s vicious circle of depleted resources, emotional and financial. Less money and less time equals less love; neglect becomes a way of life. “I’d like to read your story,” Meg’s harried mom says one night. Acidly Meg responds: “It’s not a story-it’s a poem.” The woman is sunk so deep in her own bitter and all-consuming drama, she can’t keep her daughter’s life in focus.

Blue Car has its flaws. The depiction of Auster leaves too much to our imagination-this is that rare film that needed to be a half hour longer-and we also need to see more of his wife, played in a brief but unsettling appearance by Frances Fisher. The arc of the drama is predictable, perhaps, but gratifying nonetheless. The ending hews to the rules of the coming-of-age genre; Moncrieff leaves her protagonist stripped of illusions, but stronger for it: her faith in one person shaken, her alertness to life’s poetry sharpened and deepened by the disappointment. end

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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Published in the 2003-06-06 issue: View Contents
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