I’ve spent the entire month of February looking at 21st century romance on film as a work in progress, as a genre that’s trying to adjust to a new social and financial status quo. Typically a fairly conservative genre, 21st century romance is struggling and often fumbling with progressivism, trying to find new stories to tell, and new ways to tell old stories. But when did that status quo really end? And what killed it?
Allow me to put forth Peyton Reed’s 2003 romantic comedy Down with Love as my answer.
Now, not enough people saw Down with Love for it to have actually killed the genre, but the film nevertheless seemed to see – and maybe kind of revel in – the collapse of a particular genre of romantic comedy. Though heavily influenced by the Rock Hudson/Doris Day sex farces of the 1960s, director Peyton Reed and screenwriters Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake end up conflating decades worth of romantic comedy tropes and traditions in their sharp, weird satire. Down with Love is an oddball explosion in the heart of a certain type of fast-talking, star-driven romantic comedy, and while it didn’t kill the genre, it did its best to put certain ideas within it to bed.
In Down with Love, rural Maine writer Barbara Novak (Renée Zellweger) arrives in New York City to meet with her editor (Sarah Paulson) and promote her new book, also called Down with Love. The book, a female empowerment self-help book aimed at divorcing sex from marriage and encouraging women to make strides in the workplace, ends up taking off across the world… but not before Novak is snubbed repeatedly by star journalist Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor), who blows off multiple interviews with Novak so he can sleep around. But when Novak’s book takes off and she criticizes Block publicly, he hatches a plan to seduce her, make her fall in love with him, and destroy her reputation – and the social advances made by her book. Little does he know that Novak has plans of her own….
The plot of Down with Love is purposely ridiculous, and it only gets sillier as the film progresses. To spoil the film’s absurdist plot twists would do a disservice to the farcical comedy – and to a powerhouse comic monologue from Zellweger – but Reed, Ahlert, and Drake are conscious of the way they’re playing with gender tropes and U.S. history. The romantic comedy, particularly ‘battle of the sexes’ comedies, tend to be rather conservative in the end, but Down with Love understands that expectation and actively plays off it.
Peyton Reed also demonstrates some of the formal charm that audiences would find so winning in 2015’s Ant-Man, utilizing split-screens and rapid-fire editing to toss off a joke-a-second. Anything can be turned into a dirty joke. In the film’s most famous sequence, Reed makes the all the potent sexual subtext of a phone conversation between the two stars planning a date into subtext with a series of faux-dirty split-screen shots. The banter between leads in a romance story is supposed to heighten sexual tension, and Down with Love knows that, and exaggerates way past the point of absurdity. Which is essentially the modus operandi of the entire film: Find subtext, make it text and surround that text with neon lights and a gorgeous costume.
And there’s a degree to which I think that process of finding and satirizing the tropes of a genre is, while fundamentally a loving process by the people making the movie, also a sign of impending doom. It’s a sign of a staid, formula-driven environment and often a call to push harder, for more. The same year Down with Love came out, so did the modern ne plus ultra of star-driven, traditional romantic comedies: Love Actually. Love Actually was a sizable success, but it was also a kind of last hurrah to many of these traditional lily-white upper-middle-class romcom worlds. Shortly thereafter, the huge success of Hitch paved the way for more romance featuring actors of color and Brokeback Mountain would start the process (though very slowly) for mainstreaming LGBTQ stories for American viewers, while the rise of the bro in the romcom with The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up introduced a lot of improv looseness to the genre – and a focus on men’s stories, which was great for the box office but less good for one of the few remaining genres where women had consistently been able to take the lead.
In a way, 2003 was the death of a certain type of romantic comedy, a final gasping laugh that simultaneously criticized and celebrated the genre’s excess. And you couldn’t ask for a better farewell party than Down with Love, an exuberant ode to everything that works – and a reminder of everything that didn’t – of the genre’s classics.
I will be continuing this series of articles after the month of February, because… well, I like writing them. But I’ll likely drop it back to every other week for the foreseeable future. Still, there’s a lot to talk about, especially since I haven’t even dropped in on any of the rare romantic mega-success stories from recent years, or any movies I don’t really like but that are vital to the state of the genre today. Speaking of…
Next time on Loveless
Previously on Loveless