It’s Affectionate and Smart, And I’m Down With Love

Peyton Reed’s Down with Love , from a screenplay by Eve Alhert and Dennis Drake, turned out to be much more amusing and incisive than I had anticipated when I managed to catch an early-morning screening, along with a scattering of other paying customers, at the Clearview Beekman Theatre. The studio publicists had earlier sent me a press kit containing footage of all the major players going on and on about what they were trying to do in the film, and I found myself developing a premature hostility to yet another movie (along with the ridiculously overrated Far from Heaven ) that promised to display a smug superiority to the films of an earlier period-the implied message being that we in the new millennium are so much more sophisticated than our predecessors. I also suspected that, for a supposedly tongue-in-cheek take on the Doris Day–Rock Hudson sex-without-sex comedies of the 60’s, Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor were obviously miscast. But lo and behold- the movie was so much better than I had anticipated.

As it turns out, Down with Love hasn’t been given enough credit for its affectionate but satirical insights into the early 60’s and especially the films of that era. Most of the critics have focused on the retro costuming and paper-moon backdrops, to the exclusion of scenes depicting the social and cultural mores at the time. When Ms. Zellweger’s Barbara Novak emerges from Grand Central Terminal like a hayseed virgin about to begin her adventures in New York, she nearly chokes on all the secondhand smoke in the air. This comically anticlimactic entrance transforms the by now very well known Ms. Zellweger into a visitor from another time, ready to mix it up with 1962-but from a discerning distance. Later, when her character comes across a cab unloading a contingent of ban-the-Bomb protesters outside Grand Central Terminal, the film does at least acknowledge a political presence in the period, which is more than A Mighty Wind did. Timing is everything in these matters, and, happily, Down with Love is razor-sharp all the way through.

Barbara is soon walking confidently into the main elevator of Banner Books, a swanky publishing house, only to find herself squeezed in among an army of men in business suits. But before the joke can wear thin, she arrives at her floor, where she embraces her enterprising editor, Vikki Hiller (Sarah Paulson). From that moment on, the two women become an item, irrepressible, color-coordinated partners in feminist advancement. Their joint entrances in restaurants and nightclubs become virtual musical interludes. The two characters complement each other, not in the traditional manner of female lead and acid-tongued hanger-on (think Eve Arden or Thelma Ritter), but more like Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell’s “two little girls from Little Rock” in Gentleman Prefer Blondes (1953).

There’s a brief swipe at period sexism in the Banner Books boardroom, where Vikki is forced into the position of coffee-server for an array of male chauvinist pigs, who enter and exit in buffoonish lockstep (again without wearing out their welcome). Meanwhile, the male half of the gender equation emerges in the offices of Know magazine, an Esquire -like lair of early-60’s masculinity, less odious than the post-ironic maleness of Maxim and other “laddie” publications now banned in Wal-Mart stores. Mr. McGregor plays Catcher Block, Know ‘s ace correspondent and womanizer extraordinaire. David Hyde Pierce (best known as Niles Crane, the effete heterosexual brother on Frasier ) plays Catcher’s comic foil and publisher, Peter MacMannus, in a role supposedly patterned after Tony Randall vis-à-vis Rock Hudson in those early 60’s comedies-though, as it turns out, not exactly. As Catcher goes after Barbara, Peter chases Vikki with all the bravado he can muster. When the two men exchange apartments to facilitate their separate pursuits (Catcher’s bachelor pad for Peter’s WASP-ish digs), Barbara suspects nothing, though we eventually learn that she is not nearly as naïve as she seems. Vikki, on the other hand, immediately smells a rat when Peter blurts out that the picture on the mantelpiece is of Catcher’s parents and not his own. Putting two and two together (and getting five), Vikki calmly asks the sputtering Peter whether he’s having a homosexual relationship with Catcher. It’s O.K. if he is, she goes on, and it certainly won’t stand in the way of her wanting to marry him. This degree of bold effrontery on the subject of gayness would’ve been verboten in the old Day-Hudson pictures, but Love ‘s liberating frankness is a refreshing change from the melodramatic theatrics with which the subject was treated in Far from Heaven .

Mr. Randall himself, now in his 80’s, takes on a small but telling role in Down with Love as the imperious Banner Books publisher who tries to kill Barbara’s proto-feminist best-seller because it has complicated his sexual relations-not so much with his wife as with his mistress. (No gay subtext here.)

Having said all this, I don’t want to exaggerate the significance of Down with Love. Indeed, I can almost understand why I’m so out of step with those of my colleagues who have panned it. I think it compares favorably with Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back in its well-timed gags and verbal dexterity. But it’s no classic, unlike say Tootsie (1982) or Groundhog Day (1993). In the greatest of all the screwball sex comedies, The Awful Truth (1937), there’s a suddenly painful, poignant moment between Irene Dunne and Cary Grant that I’ve always thought of as the Leo McCarey moment, when the heart begins to sing right after the laughs. There is no such moment in Down with Love . But there’s still a great deal of expertly managed fun and merriment, and the unexpected dividend of Judy Garland singing Harold Arlen’s “Down with Love” for real.

Must-See Mutants

Bryan Singer’s X2 , from a screenplay by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, based on the Marvel Comics series X-Men , belongs to a genre from which I’d do well to recuse myself. Although I’ve been a compulsive reader of newspaper comic strips from early childhood to this day, I have never bothered much with comic books-except, that is, for a brief flirtation with Mad Magazine , mostly for its hilarious send-ups of movies. But with any kind of adventure comic or the more recent phenomenon of the graphic novel, it’s still a resounding No !

But having seen and enjoyed X2 , I am now determined to catch up with X-Men the comic book, as well as Mr. Singer’s previous movie, X-Men (2000)-which is to say, in the ancient words of Jerry Lewis: “I liked it! I liked it!”

The most striking aspect of X2 was, for me, the actors and their characters, especially the women: Famke Janssen, Halle Berry, Rebecca Romijn-

Stamos, Anna Paquin and Kelly Hu. Considering the macho fantasizing that traditionally goes on in the genre, the women make up as rich and varied an assortment of female characters-heart and mind, body and soul-as has been assembled in any movie this year.

The über -talented male actors are not exactly chopped liver, either. The cerebral Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is the leader of the mutants who wish to live in peace with the humans, as opposed to Magneto (Ian McKellen), chieftain of a radical tribe of mutants bent on destroying hostile humanity. In X2 , Professor Xavier and Magneto are drawn together in an alliance of convenience against the common threat of Brian Cox’s malignantly anti-mutant government scientist, William Stryker.

Hugh Jackman’s charismatic Wolverine brings an X factor of his own into the power balance, as he seeks the secret of his own identity while battling Stryker’s aggressions against the scattered mutant multitudes. He’s assisted by his fellow X-men, with telltale noms de mutant like Pyro (Aaron Stanford), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Cyclops (James Marsden) and Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming).

Faithful Marvel readers can explain all the subtexts better than I can. Suffice to say that I was steadily engrossed and entertained and ultimately moved by a drama that is, in the end, more human than mutant. Even if, like me, you consider yourself too serious-minded to sit through an already certified blockbuster not entirely of this world with a cryptic title like X2 , give this prolonged splash of special effects a chance. It is better than its genre.

Noble Choices

Aviva Slesin’s Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers During WWII was written by Toby Appleton Perl, and co-produced by Ms. Slesin and Ms. Perl. The title would seem to say it all, but what makes this latest sidelight on the Nazi Holocaust more than just another well-intentioned rehash of horror and heroism are the unexpectedly perverse nuances in the film’s margins. Ms. Slesin knows whereof she speaks, because she was one of the child survivors.

As the relatively few European Jews who were saved from the death camps recall their Christian rescuers, some find themselves feeling both gratitude for these people, who risked the lives of their own children to save the children of Jews, and a strange lack of empathy when they were reunited with their own parents after four or five years.

It remains painfully evident that the rescuers were pitifully few in these societies and vastly outnumbered by the accomplices to evil (which includes both active accomplices and those who maintained a self-preserving indifference). But who among us can say for certain how we would have behaved if presented with the cruel choices faced by those heroic few in Europe not so very long ago?

Get a Life

Angela Christlieb and Stephen Kijak’s documentary Cinemania tracks the obsessive lifestyles of five cinephiles based in New York City. Cinemania is one addiction with which I can identify and sympathize wholeheartedly, inasmuch as I have written extensively about my compulsive moviegoing in earlier decades. My friends and faculty advisers often urged me to “get a life”-which seemed a humdrum bit of advice, especially when That Hamilton Woman , with Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, was playing at one of the revival theaters in town. So I’m in no mood or position to hector Jack Angstreich, Roberta Hill, Bill Heidbreder, Harvey Schwartz and Eric Chadbourne as they organize their lives around film schedules. I know their pain-and their epiphanies.