Down with Love

“Down with Love” is essentially just one long joke, but it’s such a sunny, good-natured one that only with great grumpy effort, I suspect, could one succeed in not enjoying it.

It is shot in the style of the Rock Hudson/Doris Day romantic comedies of the early 1960s, complete with deliciously retro sets and costumes and arch, kitschy dialogue. But it is a parody of that style more than an homage to it, skewing its conventions for a modern, more aware audience. For example, a split-screen phone conversation — that hallmark of “modern” filmmaking that early-’60s directors loved so much — is turned humorously filthy in a way that makes you wonder if the Austin Powers people shouldn’t be suing for copyright infringement.

Renee Zellweger, cuter than ever, plays Barbara Novak, a Maine writer whose book “Down with Love” — which teaches women how to behave like men, i.e., have sex all they want without getting emotionally attached — rockets to the top of the bestseller list and makes her the worship of all women and the scorn of all men. (Her advice includes making women co-equals, hence the male resentment.)

This is 1962, and liberated, independent women are still very much the minority. Doing all he can to continue subjugating them is Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor), a swinging James Bond type who writes for a men’s magazine called Know and has a stable of stewardesses he sleeps with in regular rotation. He sets out to beat Barbara at her own game by making her fall in love with him despite her love-is-bad philosophy. To that end, he plays the part of an innocent hayseed named Zip Martin and woos her, refusing to have sex with her unless and until they are married.

Directed with subversive wit by Peyton Reed (“Bring It On”) and written by TV scribes Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake, the film manages to be both old-fashioned and dirty at the same time, taking the teasy sexuality and chaste double-entendres of the 1960s and reworking them into something modern audiences will find naughty indeed. That maneuver is clearly successful: The film has only one mild profanity and no nudity, yet still richly earns its PG-13 rating.

Zellweger and McGregor are charming indeed, and they are backed up by an amusing secondary romance between their characters’ best friends, played by David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Paulson. Pierce, in particular, does what the character in his situation is supposed to do: get the biggest laughs.

The immediate comparison with this film is “Far From Heaven,” which duplicated another genre of the mid-20th century, that of the weepy tragic melodrama. Where “Far From Heaven” succeeded, however, is where “Down with Love” falls short. That film’s genius was in telling a relatable, honest story even while utilizing a highly stylized form of acting. This film gets the style right, but the story it tells is identical to the sort we see — and are tired of — in modern romantic comedies. A lot of effort has gone into getting the look and feel right, but at times it looks and feels like nothing more than an exercise, like telling someone to duplicate “Pillow Talk” as a class assignment.

Still, I must return to my original assessment, that the high-spirited merriment is hard not to like, and the performances are smart and charismatic. It is not as funny as a satire of this nature ought to be, but satire is tricky, comedy is hard, and “Down with Love” occasionally gets them both sort of right.

B- (1 hr., 36 min.; PG-13, one mild profanity and a lot of sexual innuendo and dialogue.)