- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 15, 2003

NEW YORK — “They are so afraid of us,” jokes Dan Jinks, the co-producer of “Down With Love,” a frivolous romantic comedy that doesn’t mind being the new movie that gets dwarfed at the box office this weekend by the foregone blockbuster, “The Matrix Reloaded.”

As a matter of fact, Mr. Jinks and his colleagues — co-producer Bruce Cohen, director Peyton Reed and cast members Renee Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, David Hyde-Pierce and Sarah Paulson — presented a blithely optimistic united front at a press junket staged at the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue.

They had the neighborhood right.

The movie is designed to evoke a posh New York of the early 1960s while glamorizing Miss Zellweger as a best-selling author, Barbara Novak, whose advocacy of professional and sexual equality for women arouses the competitive beast in Mr. McGregor’s playboy journalist, Catcher Block. Mr. Hyde-Pierce is cast as a timid, lovelorn publisher, Peter McMannus. He owns the magazine, Know, that showcases Catcher the seductive cad. Peter also carries a torch for Miss Paulson’s Vikki Hiller, the brittle, secretly man-hungry book editor who has discovered Barbara’s troublemaking polemic, also titled “Down With Love.”

The “Down With Love” team is attempting to rejuvenate a form of romantic-comedy stylization that petered out in the 1960s, doomed by the upsurge in explicit talk and sex. Their inspiration is the coyly insinuating romantic farce, exemplified for a time by three popular co-starring vehicles for Doris Day and Rock Hudson: “Pillow Talk,” “Lover Come Back” and “Send Me No Flowers.”

The collaborators acknowledge that they may be dabbling in a risky genre. “It was a bold thing to do,” Mr. Jinks says, “counterprogramming against ‘The Matrix’ with our movie. … So many movies opening right now are aimed at 11-year-old boys. We’re kind of the one exception.”

Because “The Matrix Reloaded” is rated R, its access to the 11-year-old segment of the moviegoing public might be somewhat inhibited. The producers of “Down With Love” have let it slip that their own target demographic is a bit overspecialized.

“The studio wanted to make sure it would be accessible,” Mr. Jinks reveals. “No one wanted 14-year-old girls to feel excluded because they might not be familiar with the careers of Doris Day or Rock Hudson. The script was vetted with a 23-year-old executive who’s kind of the house expert on young reactions, and she liked it as much as anyone else. We’ve tested the movie, and 14-year-old girls go nuts for it.

Mr. Cohen clarifies the conventional wisdom about remaining competitive with a mass film audience. “The rule of thumb,” he says, “is that you attract your core audience, whatever it is, in the first weekend. From that point on, you’re at the mercy of word-of-mouth. It gets scarier all the time, because more and more is riding on that first weekend. Most of the advertising investment is frontloaded into the first week or two.”

His attention is called to the convergence of “About a Boy” and “Star Wars: Episode II, Attack of the Clones” on the same weekend a year ago. Though anything but a critical or commercial failure, “About a Boy” left an impression that its earning power had been weakened by so-called counterprogramming against the latest “Star Wars” spectacle, whose cast members included Ewan McGregor, of course.

“You always look back and wonder if a movie was marketed as well as it could be,” Mr. Cohen reflects. “We certainly hope that our movie doesn’t become an object of second-guessing. So far, we feel that Fox is doing a great job of getting the word out.”

Confronted with the same topic, director Reed and leading man McGregor respond that the marketplace should be generous enough to accommodate a “Matrix” thriller and a nostalgic romantic confection on the same weekend. “There’s no bigger ‘Matrix’ fan than me,” Mr. Reed declares. “I think there’s room for both of them.”

Miss Zellweger remarks in passing that she and Mr. McGregor share the same Los Angeles agent. The idea of a co-starring project had been percolating for a while. Peyton Reed had the same agent as the screenwriters on “Down With Love,” Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake. However, he overlooked their script at the outset, claiming that romantic comedies with three words in the title had begun blur together.

Mr. Reed began his feature-directing career with the exuberant high school farce “Bring It On,” which overcame the three-little-words stigma. Nevertheless, if you’re hoping to break in with a romantic-comedy script, be advised: Mr. Reed finally was alerted to “Down With Love” by his wife, who read it while they were on vacation.

Miss Zellweger admits that her familiarity with the Doris Day-Rock Hudson inventory was remote until the producers sent around video copies for study and reflection. She became a rabid convert. “I love them,” she affirms. “I didn’t want them to end. And it was fun to play this version of them.

“The hardest job for me is the beautification process. I appreciate the skill it takes, but I want it to be done, so I can go and act. When you discover that you’re allergic to false eyelashes, for example, you wish you were back on ‘Cold Mountain,’ where they throw some dirt on your cheeks and you’re ready to go.”

The co-stars agree that there’s no point in pretending artificial comedy isn’t different. “It’s about the banter,” Miss Zellweger insists. “The dialogue reminds you that you’re playing a heightened reality, far removed from what usually feels genuine or authentic. You can’t depend on those guidelines when doing this material.”

Mr. McGregor admits that shifting to a farcical context was troublesome for him. “It demanded a specific style of comedy that we don’t do any more,” he explains. “The rule you’re taught is that you don’t play the comedy, you play the character. But in this, you better play the comedy, one way or another, or you’re sunk.”

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