Down With Down With Love!

Aw, shucks-I really wanted to like Down with Love. Considering how rock-bottom-in-the-slag-pit today’s movies have sunk, a little taste of the harmless, entertaining sexual politics in glossy Ross Hunter sex comedies like Pillow Talk could be not only appealing, but downright restorative. But Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor as Doris Day and Rock Hudson? Are they kidding? Despite the preposterous plot, the nauseous cotton-candy décor and the smarmy, leering double entendres, Down with Love is a contrived and long-winded attempt to parody Pillow Talk. Unfortunately, it’s too dull and hackneyed for the satirical spoof it intends to be, and the actors and director miss the charm and humor of the old Doris Day movies by a margin so wide it doesn’t add up to a respectful homage, either. Back in the late 50′s and early 60′s, I took those Universal comedies for granted. Now, I miss them more than I ever thought possible.

Doris Day was one of the truly perfect women ever to grace the screen. She was smart, funny, warm, beautiful in a sunny, wholesome way and surprisingly, unfailingly sexy. She was such a natural and charismatic force that without a single acting lesson, she seized the screen from her very first appearance (in the 1948 musical Romance on the High Seas) and remained a superstar for 20 years, and she was-and still is-one of the really flawless singers of all time. Whatever unfair double life he led, Rock Hudson was, on the screen, the kind of scrubbed and dashing leading man that all the women wanted-and most of the men wanted to be. These two all-American icons made only three films together, but their place in the Hollywood Boulevard cement is forever stamped. There has been no team like them, then or since. Everyone connected with Down with Love is clueless about the wit, warmth and special glamour they brought to their films. Director Peyton Reed has tried to do for the Doris Day–Rock Hudson comedies what Todd Haynes did for the Douglas Sirk melodramas in Far From Heaven, but he’s not even in the same ballpark as that brilliant and innovative, award-winning triumph. Down with Love is so contrived and scattered that the result is more like Bifocals Barbie Meets Wrinkle-Free Ken in a movie exploding with too much sparkle spackle. Ms. Zellweger was better suited as a bruised éclair like Roxie Hart, but as a pink and fluffy fashion victim with feminist roots that change from frame to frame, she looks like years of disco-dancing in stiletto heels are taking their toll on her dainty, arched feet. Mr. McGregor has played so many heroin addicts, poster boys for nudity camps and general scuzzballs that it comes as a shock to see him freshly shaved, with short hair plastered down with slickum, dressed for a Seagram’s ad. Obviously he wants a new image, but he was pretty awful in Moulin Rouge, and as a hunky babe magnet in Down with Love, the miscasting overwhelms. Scrawny and pasty-faced, he’s no Rock, or even Tab. The effect of too many parties is self-evident. He may not be ready to exchange dance steps for 12 steps, but a copy of the Big Book and a six-pack of Diet Coke can’t be far behind.

An anemic yet overworked plot brings small-town librarian Barbara Novak (Ms. Zellweger) to New York from Maine, where she spent the winter writing a nonfiction book called Down with Love, dedicated to the unctuous theory that the key to happiness for women is casual sex without love, which will lead to equality and eventual empowerment in the bed and workplace. One appearance on the Ed Sullivan show and she’s pushing John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage off the best-seller list-but to plug the book and stay on top, she gets nailed into about 100 fashion knockoffs from the 1960′s (costume designer Daniel Orlandi is no Edith Head) and is forced to submit to a vicious profile by star journalist Catcher Block (McGregor) for a magazine called Know. Catcher is a lady-killer who sets out to prove that all women want the same things-love, marriage and the lollipop in his underwear-by getting the prim librarian into bed while pretending to be an astronaut with a ludicrous Southern accent. Nobody understands what made the Doris Day–Rock Hudson movies so popular and appealing in the first place, so in a desperate attempt to turn Down with Love into something their generation understands (which is cartoon imitations and technology), the filmmakers sand-blast the movie with filthy, stupid and really insulting jokes aimed at homosexuals and women, dated talk about chastity, split-screen bathtub sex like Pillow Talk that is flatter than Formica, two-pieced pink Jackie Kennedy windowpane plaid suits, a beatnik bongo party, polka dots that multiply and fuchsia sets the color of tutti-frutti malteds. It’s a true indication of what’s wrong with today’s young filmmakers that a movie with this many visual distractions can also be so boring. In mincing support, David Hyde Pierce, as Mr. McGregor’s boss, does the simpering Tony Randall role (mercifully, the real Tony Randall makes a welcome cameo appearance for no apparent reason), and the second-banana Eve Arden part goes to lisping Sarah Paulson, who is either a terrible actress or suffering from a serious speech impediment.

Down with Love is the kind of retro date movie where you overhear women gushing “I loved her turbans!” and guys groaning “He had a cool fireplace.” But what kind of movie sends you away humming the lampshades? This one has the artificial color and creepy camp of vintage B movies and the smirking vulgarity of gender-bending lingerie ads. What it lacks in fatal doses is what Doris Day had plenty of-the kind of style that left her fully defined and the rest of us clamoring for more.

Two Left Feet

It had to happen. Encores!, the popular, usually exciting and always professional series of staged concert versions of old Broadway musicals at the City Center, finally came a cropper. Richard Rodgers’ 1962 solo effort No Strings, the final Encores! show of the season, wasn’t just disappointing: It was a head-on collision with a cement wall. One of the functions of these revivals is to interest audiences in what went wrong with these old shows as much as what went right. So the fact that No Strings is a naïve, dated and second-rate effort by one of the great legends of the American musical theater is practically an expectation, not a surprise. The sad and inexcusable part was the truly deadly direction and club-footed choreography by Ann Reinking. How else can you explain the torturous and repetitive dance steps that were embarrassing enough to be laughable? James Naughton, the star of the evening and a performer I admire enormously, is many things-actor, writer, director, singer, guitarist, cabaret artist-but Baryshnikov, he ain’t. More than once, Ms. Reinking forced him to lift, turn, soar, clutch women to his chest who were twice his size, and hurl them spread-eagle across the proscenium. He looked like he was having a panic attack. Perfectly understandable, since the audience was having one for him. Everyone, that is, but Ben Brantley, whose rave review left everyone I know who saw this appalling production slack-jawed. So much for critical perception and the good old gray reliability of The New York Times.

No Strings is a show about a writer from Maine who, in the six years since winning a Pulitzer Prize, has lost track of both his talent and his reputation and settled for coasting through the party circuit in Paris. In a photographer’s studio, he meets a black American model who is the daughter of a Madison Avenue bus driver, and they fall in love. She tries to rehabilitate him. He discovers that she is being lavishly “kept” by a wealthy old “mentor,” even though the word “sex” has never been mentioned. They break up in a song. They make up in a song. In the end, he’s headed back to Maine to write and she packs to go with him, then realizes she might be exchanging a privileged life of luxury and glamour for nasty old American bigotry and prejudice, even though the race card has never been played. They promise to write, but it’s obvious they will never see each other again. What the heck. It was a fun time, full of cocktails and beach parties in St. Tropez and endless fashion shows, not to mention all those endless Richard Rodgers songs! Totally superficial, of course, but in 1962 the stars were Richard Kiley and the stylish and beautiful Diahann Carroll, and what else mattered? If nothing else, they had elegance and charisma. Mr. Naughton looked natty and virile, but he seemed to be suffering from an attack of Dutch elm’s disease. I’ve seen him great; I’ve never seen him wooden. His co-star, Maya Days, from the pop world of Aïda and Rent, was sadly mismatched. Possessing neither Ms. Carroll’s beauty nor her liquid way with a song, Ms. Days had a big voice, a small acting talent, and practically no idea what to do with her hands and feet. In their love scenes, it looked doubtful that they had even been introduced. Wandering around them in disjointed confusion was an impressive array of talents, all of whom appeared to missing the guiding hand of a badly needed director. Penny Fuller played a fashion editor from Vogue; Len Cariou was the old French millionaire with an accent he must have acquired at Le Drugstore; the wonderful Emily Skinner was a crude Oklahoma heiress named Comfort O’Connell; and Marc Kudisch was her flavor of the summer, who looked good in Bain de Soleil. The design was cool, the musicians were seated on platforms, the stage was lit by steel girders of blue lights, and the jazzy orchestrations were in keeping with Ralph Burns’ original charts, featuring nothing but brass (i.e., “no strings” of any kind). But small pleasures could not camouflage the irrelevance of Samuel Taylor’s dumb, dismal book, or the fact that this was Richard Rodgers’ first show after the death of Oscar Hammerstein, and it shows in one forgettable, perfunctory song after the next. Most of all, nothing could save those cellophane characters from their own dead ends, onstage or in life. For all of its hidden passion and innuendo, No Strings was Sunday soup in a Brighton Beach heat wave, with all of the romance and allure of a collision of matzo balls.

Short List

As veteran New Yorkers grow older, the goals on our wish lists diminish. We compromise on things we used to crave-a new convertible every summer, a house in Nantucket, a meaningful relationship that lasts, a charge account at Le Cirque-and settle for Bobby Short. I don’t think this Cole Porter icon, now in his 35th straight season at the Café Carlyle, knows how lucky he is. While everything else goes to the dogs, Bobby Short always stays the same. Almost everyone from his age group and musical persuasion is gone. He carries the torch where Mabel Mercer and Sylvia Syms left off. He illuminates it with his own special radiance and gusto. But don’t take my word for it; experience this aging Wunderkind for yourself.

The Carlyle isn’t the same, either. Chicken hash was the only thing on the insulting opening-night menu-a cheap, no-class ploy by the new management, and a dish that Mabel Mercer would have compared to hospital-cafeteria fodder. But brave the hash, anyway. It’s worth it to see Mr. Short at the piano in such fine fettle, accompanied by eight excellent musicians who turn an ordinary cabaret evening into a concert revue. Whether he’s singing the little-known verse to Harold Arlen’s “I’ve Got the World on a String,” or gliding on gossamer wings through familiar Cole Porter standards like “Looking at You” and “Just One of Those Things,” Mr. Short takes each song and applies a lifetime of experience and musical savvy until he literally turns it inside out. He’s the perfect person to peruse all the metaphors in “At Long Last Love”-after all, he truly knows the difference between Granada and Asbury Park, or a new Rolls and a used Chevrolet. As always, he surprises and thrills with material that is off the beaten track. “Love Like This Can’t Last” by Billy (“Lush Life”) Strayhorn is an electrifying ballad; a great Allan Jones song called “Tomorrow Is Another Day” (from the Marx Brothers comedy A Day at the Races) rocks the joint; and the raunchy “Empty Bed Blues” will turn a few faces bright red. With Basie licks, Tatum kicks, a voiceless Gravel Gertie, more matinee idol than usual, and his trademark drollery and spruce, Bobby Short is back for a couple of months. I don’t know why he doesn’t cut out all this nonsense and just move in forever. With Bobby in residence full-time, the Carlyle chef might even graduate to lobster.