Film: Day Camp

Sometimes—fairly often, in fact—the prospect of seeing yet another Hollywood movie makes me want to renounce the world, or at least make a nice, long retreat. That was how I felt as I contemplated the lineup at my neighborhood gigaplex, wondering which sequel, homage, or remake to write about this month. The Matrix Reloaded? X2: X-Men United? Thanks, but no thanks. I briefly considered The In-Laws, but not even the opportunity to spend an evening with Albert Brooks was promising enough to make me stomach what by all accounts was a witless mangling of one of the funniest films of the 1970s. (Fortunately, the original, with Peter Falk and Alan Arkin, has just been released on DVD, making it unnecessary to sit through the new version.) Then there was The Shape of Things, the film version of Neil LaBute’s most recent amorality play, which I saw on stage last year—an experience I recall as having been not unlike spending two hours filing my teeth with a rusty nail. Once was enough.

Even the “new” movies seemed suspiciously familiar. Bruce Almighty, for instance, was obviously the latest in the endless series of what-if movies starring Jim Carrey. What if Jim Carrey became God for a week? What if he could tell nothing but the truth for a week? What if his nose grew an inch every time he told a bad joke? No doubt some clever Hollywood entrepreneur is already writing a piece of software that will make it possible for semiliterate screenwriters to churn out such scripts by the hundreds. Once he also figures out how to generate a virtual Jim Carrey, the process of making stupid movies for the easily amused will be simplified still further.

As for me, I’ve simplified it maximally by refusing to blow ten bucks on what-if movies, which to my mind come perilously close to Hugh Kenner’s definition of conceptual art: that which, once described, need not be experienced. Instead, I held my nose and went to see Peyton Reed’s Down With Love, not because I thought it’d be any good but because I thought it might possibly be amusing to write about, since it’s a spoof of an already silly genre, the Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedies of Virginity Preserv’d.

If you’re under the age of 40, you probably won’t remember such movies as Pillow Talk (1959) and Lover Come Back (1961), in which Day played a perky maiden determined to save herself for her wedding night, with Hudson the dashing ladies’ man no less determined to deflower her premaritally. Lucky you. To watch these titteringly vapid farces on cable TV is to marvel at the fact that they were once hugely popular. Indeed, I remember thinking them the acme of sophistication when they first made their way to network TV in the 1960s, back in the half-forgotten days of my pubescence. Little did we innocents know that the double entendres were on us. Doris Day was a big-band singer turned actress who had hopped in and out of any number of beds in her youth (Oscar Levant famously claimed he’d known her before she was a virgin), while Rock Hudson was a closeted homosexual who submitted to a studio-arranged manage blanc in order to keep his preferences out of the papers.

Why anyone would now feel the need to pay belated homage to these dreadful films is beyond me, but Peyton Reed seems to have thought it worthwhile, producing a movie that is half affectionate, half sniggering. The trouble is that you’re never sure which half you’re seeing at any given moment. Renee Zellweger, for instance, makes a decidedly confusing impression as Barbara Novak, a Helen Gurley Brown-type authoress whose book about how to have sex without really trying becomes a surprise bestseller. It’s not that she isn’t cute— nobody’s cuter—but my guess is that Reed told her to read all her lines with a pretty little simper, just as he must have ordered Ewan McGregor, the jet-set reporter who longs to bed Zellweger, to swivel stiffly from the waist up (thus making him look more like Robert Wagner than Rock Hudson). Between their stilted performances and Marc Shaiman’s laugh-track score, which telegraphs every punch in an unsubtle script with the finesse of a nightclub drummer, Down With Love plays more like a Saturday Night Live sketch than a full-length movie.

The one thing Reed gets right—if you can call it that—is the surface appearance of the lost world that Down With Love, which is set in 1962, seeks to evoke. From Zellweger’s Jackie Kennedy–pink suit to the cutesy-pie animated credits to the period rear-projection scenes that pop up every time a character takes a cab ride, Down With Love never puts a foot wrong in the design department. It was made for pop-culture trivia buffs, which undoubtedly explains why it’s gotten such unexpectedly gentle reviews: Reed offers critics an infinite number of opportunities to show off their knowledge of 1960s arcana. (Even I will admit to having been mildly amused by Zellweger’s appearance as the mystery guest on a TV game show that bears an uncanny resemblance to What’s My Line?)

But authentic period detail does not an amusing movie make, and Down With Love has almost nothing else going for it except David Hyde Pierce, who has fun with the Tony Randall–Gig Young supporting-male role of McGregor’s boss. To be sure, Pierce is playing much the same part he plays on Frasier—the fussy, effeminate sidekick who for some inexplicable reason likes girls—but he does it as deftly here as on TV, adding a desperately needed touch of comic weight to this severely under-egged pudding. The now-venerable Randall deigned to play a bit part in Down With Love, and he must have been charmed to see his younger self evoked so exactly.

Yet here, too, Reed and his screenwriters, Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake, have coarsened an already coarse model, for it turns out that the woman Pierce is wooing thinks he really is gay—which not only spoils the joke but gives away the game. I have no information on the sexual preferences of the makers of Down With Love, but when I see a hyperdesigned period piece that not only sends up Rock Hudson but also goes out of its way to include a film clip of Judy Garland singing the title song, that’s all I know and all I need to know.

Unlikely as it may sound, Down With Love reminded me of Far From Heaven, another elephantine homage to the dear departed cinematic past in which homosexual themes, both explicit and implicit, are shoehorned into every foot. But the problem with these movies is not that they’re gay, or even that they’re open about it—it’s that they’re so relentlessly campy. Needless to say, camp has its place in comedy (I’ve watched All About Eve more times than any straight man I know) but only as a condiment, not a main dish. Peyton Reed, who clearly thinks otherwise, has substituted camp for content in Down With Love, which is like eating a can of frosting in lieu of baking a cake.

  • Terry Teachout

    Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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