Going ‘Down With Love’: Sex, Lies, and Romantic Comedies

“And when you’d realized that you had finally met your match, I would have at last gained the respect that would make you want to marry me first and seduce me later.”

– Barbara Novack, Down With Love

Take yourself back, way back. To the days when cinema cared about romance and chemistry, when films were farces and sparks flew. You could be thinking of the 1960s or the 90s/2000s, two eras when the Hollywood romantic comedy flourished. Cinema romanticizes our lives, sure, but for decades it was romanticizing, well, romance. It’s easy to forget the times when films ended on a big kiss between the (heteronormative, gorgeous) leads. Peyton Reed’s 2003 camp classic Down With Love recalls the heyday of Hollywood romantic comedies while critiquing just how little progress the genre had made, formulaically and politically.  

It’s New York City in 1962. Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor) is a big-time magazine writer and womanizer. Barbara Novack (Renée Zellweger) is a new bestselling author of Down With Love, encouraging women to have sex for pleasure without emotional attachment. A threat to Catcher’s own lifestyle as well as the patriarchal hierarchy of America, he poses as Zip Martin, a demure astronaut that’s been in space since the book’s release, to trick Barbara into falling in love with him, proving that all women in fact desire love and marriage over sex. To anyone that’s seen more than one romantic comedy, this plot likely sounds familiar. Combined with the pitch-perfect 1960s aesthetic, this film could be a remake of the Rock Hudson-Doris Day sex comedy Pillow Talk (Michael Gordon, 1959). But Down With Love is as much a pastiche of the sex comedies of Hollywood’s past as it is a critique of the romantic comedies of its own time.

A man and a woman having drinks while sitting on a couch. They look at each other with drinks in their hands. The woman wears a dress and smiles, while the man wears a white tuxedo and has an unreadable expression.
Image courtesy of Fox 2000 Pictures

Deception lies at the heart of Down With Love’s most beloved contemporaries. Modern retelling of literary classics like 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) and She’s All That (1999) center men being paid to date undesirable, non-feminine women. Films like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), Hitch (2006), and 27 Dresses (2007) feature their protagonists lying about their professions to woo their love interests. The 2000s era of romantic comedies based themselves in lies to win the hearts of audiences as its protagonists won the hearts of their love interests. And in most of these cases, men deceive women, wearing the façade of a well-intentioned and decent man, only to be the kind of man that gets paid to date you. The womanizing man is often revealed to be as such to the woman, and she accepts who he is. She settles him down, encourages his growth, and makes him a better person.

Down With Love is not interested in patriarchal heteronormativity. Catcher’s attempt to prove that women like Barbara actually do need love while men can simply bask in their carnal desires is complicated by the two’s sexual desire for each other, and his eventual romantic feelings. Everything in the film is an innuendo, a tease at the fiery lust these characters have. The big romantic kiss between the leads is teased as much as their sexual desire. Despite the pastel dresses evocative of Jackie Kennedy and perfectly recreated 1962 New York City skyline, the film oozes sex in a way films of that era could not. But this focus on sex isn’t just for laughs; it informs Down With Love’s central ideal, one where men and women are complete equals in work, love, and yes, sex.

One of the most iconic scenes, Barbara and Catcher in a split-screen telephone call where they assume sexually suggestive positions, captures the film’s demand for balance. These positions are, more often than not, Catcher theoretically pleasuring Barbara, rejecting our culture’s male-centric ideas on sex. In his efforts to prove himself Barbara’s superior, Catcher finds himself falling hopelessly in love with her. Down With Love forces its men to confront gender roles they’ve never experienced: Catcher’s boss Peter MacMannus (David Hyde Pierce) fears he’ll become a “spinster” despite insisting that men cannot be spinsters; the executives that publish Barbara’s book are treated like objects for pleasure and servitude by their wives; and of course, Catcher discovers that he has met his match in Barbara.

A man and a woman both shown on the phone while in split screen. The man wears a collared shirt and smiles, while the woman wears a lavender hat and top, looking less enthused. A yellow lightning both graphic separates them.
Image courtesy of Fox 2000 Pictures

Men’s lies and deceit are central to so many romantic comedies, but in Down With Love, the twist is that Barbara was tricking Catcher. The reveal, delivered in a long, breathless monologue by Zellweger, is that Barbara already had fallen in love with Catcher, and, vowing to make him respect her enough to love her back, took on the persona of Barbara Novack. This subversion separates the film from so many sub-par films with similar plots, putting the protagonists on equal footing. It goes above and beyond other romantic comedies of the 2000s, however, once Barbara realizes that the white wedding and picket fence in the suburbs Catcher promises her isn’t what she really wants. Barbara, upon meeting one of Catcher’s many sexual partners Gwendolyn (Jeri Ryan), discovers that her book is an inspiration to women everywhere who are now demanding equality in the workforce and in the bedroom. Just like that, Down With Love makes it clear: no one in this film is going to give up their career for love , and no woman is going to dedicate her life to any man.

Catcher is in love. Barbara is CEO of her own magazine. In a lesser film, Barbara would throw away this career for him. In Down With Love, Catcher applies for a job working with Barbara. “Besides, I’ve been on top for so long I thought it might be nice to try a new position,” he says, biting into a chocolate bar. Barbara responds: “And you think you could be comfortable in a position under a woman?” Catcher, staring deep into her eyes, replies: “I look forward to it.” They finally agree to marriage, not on the pretense of perfect domesticity, but as mischievous, career-driven equals, both ready to abandon traditional gender roles in favor of equal pleasure.

Down With Love topples tropes and gender roles alike that were rampant in the 2000s as well as the 1960s. Despite its plot mirroring Hudson-Day sex comedies of the past, audiences of 2003 were well acquainted with a romantic comedy based on false identity, and they would see even more as the decade progressed. By subverting a trope ingrained in romantic comedies then (and still now), the film tackles the trope’s shaky gender politics. Hollywood, for four decades, was using trickery to push women into the arms of men they didn’t really know, all the while bolstering heterosexual coupling and gender roles. The film’s 1960s setting allows it to criticize the gender roles of the past while showing that not much progress has been made towards gender and sexual equality. This is no mere critique, though; it’s a direct call for gender equality the likes of which still are not seen in modern romance films. So cheers, here’s to Down With Love in all its pastiche glory — may more romantic comedies challenge their own conventions and push against the patriarchal ideals of the genre.