Retro: The Unquiet American


Peyton Reed
USA 2003
101 min

One reason I took so long getting to see this movie (2003) was the number of friends who assured me it was nothing special. Most of them seemed to go along uncritically with the publicists’ claim, echoed by reviewers, that it was a simple point-by-point pastiche of three late 1950s and early 1960s comedies starring Rock Hudson, Doris Day, and Tony Randall: <![CDATA[<i>]]>Pillow Talk<![CDATA[</i>]]> (1959), <![CDATA[<i>]]>Lover Come Back<![CDATA[</i>]]> (1961), and <![CDATA[<i>]]>Send Me No Flowers<![CDATA[</i>]]> (1964). These films have never appealed to me in the slightest, though Mark Rappaport did ­an expert job of unpacking them in his 1992 <![CDATA[<i>]]>Rock Hudson’s Home Movies<![CDATA[</i>]]>. But <![CDATA[<i>]]>Down With Love<![CDATA[</i>]]> is also an affectionate satire of late-50s and early-60s studio glitz that often contradicts the pastiche. The film­makers, who were too young to experience this era themselves, make plenty of errors, starting with a Fox CinemaScope logo (wrong studio and too late for that logo) and the snazzy rainbow credits (too hyperactive for the time). Then we get palatial ­Manhattan apartments (much more identified with <![CDATA[<i>]]>How to Marry a Millionaire<![CDATA[</i>]]> in 1953 and <![CDATA[<i>]]>The Tender Trap<![CDATA[</i>]]> in 1955) and bubble-gum-colored media blitzes (as in <![CDATA[<i>]]>Funny Face<![CDATA[</i>]]> and <![CDATA[<i>]]>Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?<![CDATA[</i>]]>, both 1957), and culminating in the visual and verbal double entendres, anti-smoking gags, and overt references to feminism and homosexuality that are more identifiable with subsequent decades, all the way up to the present.
Furthermore, these subjective errors – coming from people too young to have encountered the period directly, characteristically collapsing and scrambling two decades into one, and therefore winding up with a hyperbolic dream of a dream – makes the movie more fascinating and touching rather than less. By expressing a yearning for what’s perceived (with debatable accuracy) as less cynical and more innocently romantic times, <![CDATA[<i>]]>Down with Love<![CDATA[</i>]]> has a lot to say about today. It also conveys an aching sense of absence that’s too definitive to qualify as nostalgia. Nostalgia tends to shrink our image of the past into cozy pocket-size dimensions, something we already know, but this movie expands that image temporally as well as spatially – suggesting that in some ways the past is more sophisticated than the present, even if we can’t say exactly how. It hovers ambiguously over a stupid and tacky trio of hypo­critical comedies as if they contained awesome and precious secrets, and even though I can’t quite ­swallow that premise as film criticism, I treasure its creative and poetic insights into the present.
(Chicago Reader, July 11, 2003; revised March 2009)

  • Sarah Paulson - Abby Gerhard
  • Tony Randall - Rockwell Hunter
  • Renée Zellweger
  • David Hyde Pierce
  • Ewan McGregor - Joe
Bruce Coen, Dan Jinks
Related Movies