Down With Love

dir. Reed

Opens Fri May 16

Various Theaters

The most gratifying part of any modern-day romantic comedy is also its most ruinous: the inevitable, crowd-pleasing partnership of the protagonist and his or her ill-matched antagonist. Audiences weep with joy over the union of the polished sophisticate and the diamond-in-the-rough bumpkin, or the idealistic tree-hugger and the corporate lawyer--never mind the fact that beyond the screen, none of these relationships would last a week. Why? Because the movie itself is little more than a fast fuck: one minute you're looking to be entertained, the next you're heated with conflict and rushing toward a blissful crest. After that: The End.

A few decades ago it was the "sex comedy" that brought these two mismatched lovers together, usually a charmingly caddish playboy and his quietly pining stenographer. The best thing about these sex comedies, however, is that there was never any sex on screen. It was all about innuendo, frisky strategies, and dancing; a playful match of wills; and often, a revitalizing change of direction before the story ends. There was no clunky realization; just sleek, exquisitely drawn-out and choreographed foreplay, with great scenery on the side.

With its retro setting and references, Down With Love manages to not only pay direct tribute to the kind of sex comedy Doris Day and Rock Hudson made memorable with Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back (as well as the friendly-skies "layover" romps, like Boeing, Boeing starring Tony Curtis) but it proves to be the most satisfying romantic comedy I've seen in, well, decades. Ewan McGregor is Catcher Block, the unapologetic playboy with the swinging bachelor pad (in Down With Love, every apartment is stunning, and everyone dresses in the height of fashion) and a reputation as a hard-hitting journalist. Renee Zellweger is Barbara Novak, the beautiful author whose new book instructs women to forget about love and enjoy sexual pleasure as any man would. When her book becomes a revolution the world over (and he finally sees that she's not the hunchbacked old crone he assumed her to be), Catcher begins to pursue Barbara romantically, but only to poke a gaping hole in her resolve. Because he begs off their breakfast, lunch, and dinner dates (the better to indulge three stewardesses), Barbara vows never to give Catcher an interview.

Already, the stage is set for cat and mouse on multiple levels, and the plot has yet to thicken. Sure it's all ridiculous, and you know how it will end, because romantic comedies exist for no other outcome. But the foreplay (sigh!) is so, so, satisfying.