Typical of the genre the film tells the story of a woman who advocates female independence in combat with a lothario, the plot reflects the attitudes and behaviour of the early pre-sexual revolution 1960s but has an anachronistic conclusion driven by more modern, post-feminist ideas and attitudes.
New in New York City, Barbara Novak arrives at Banner House to present her new work, Down with Love, a book the intent of which is to free women from love, teach them to enjoy sex without commitment, and to replace the need for a man with things such as chocolate. Following her rules would, she believes, help to give women a boost in the workplace and in the world in general.
The men who run Banner House refuse to support the book. But Vikki Hiller, Barbara's editor, has an idea to promote the book, and that's for Barbara to meet Catcher Block – a successful writer for the magazine Know and a notorious "ladies' man, man's man, man about town" – but he avoids her repeatedly by postponing their dates until she gets fed up, insults him, and walks out.
Catcher's boss and best friend, Peter McMannus, and Vicky take a liking to one another. However, their relationship revolves around Barbara and Catcher, and neither is brave enough to express their feelings for the other. Peter feels overshadowed by Catcher's strong personality, and Vicky wants to see strength in her lover. She even assumes Peter must be gay.
Barbara starts promoting her book with Vicky's help, and things take off when they get Judy Garland to sing the song "Down with Love" as a promotion to the book on The Ed Sullivan Show. Sales skyrocket, as housewives and women around the world buy the book and rebel against their men; Catcher now wants to meet Barbara, but now it is she who rejects him.
It all comes to a boiling point when Barbara appears on a national TV show talking about a chapter from the book – "The Worst Kind of Man" – and cites Catcher Block as the perfect example. His date rejects him, which infuriates him. Catch swears he will prove Barbara is the same as every other woman, wanting the same things men do.
He arranges for a casual meeting at a drycleaners, taking advantage of the fact that Barbara has never met or seen him, and he poses as an astronaut, Major Zip Martin, attentive and polite. Barbara appears to be immediately infatuated with this man who seemingly has no idea who she is, in contrast to men who now avoid her, viewing her as the enemy since the publication of her book.
"Zip" takes her to the most fashionable locations in New York while maintaining considerable sexual tension between them by feigning naivete and a desire to remain chaste until he is "ready" for a physical relationship. But he starts falling for her, and it gets harder to go through with his plan.
When Barbara finds Catcher/Zip at a party he is almost caught out, and decides it is time to take everything to the next level: he tells Barbara that Catcher Block wants to interview him for an exposé on the NASA space program and asks her to accompany him. It is his own apartment and he sets everything up to record her saying she loves him. But then it is she who reveals the truth: she knew he was really Catcher from the beginning, but she also lied as she is not Barbara Novak but Nancy Brown, once one of Catcher's many secretaries, who fell in love with him whilst working at Know, but who turned him down when he asked her out because she did not want to be just another one in his long list of romances.
She tells him she did this to be different from all the women he knew, and make him love her. They both realize that Catcher does love her, but as he is proposing, one of his many lovers appears and thanks Barbara for what she's done for womankind. Barbara realizes that she does not want love or him as she has become a real "down with love" girl. Vicky and Peter's relationship also changes when she insults him for helping Catcher. Peter realizes he is indeed like any other man and takes Vikki to Catcher's apartment to take things to the next level.
Days later, Catcher is completely depressed; all his efforts to win Barbara back have failed. Even his exposé is ruined now that Barbara has told her story in her own magazine, Now. Peter is also depressed as his relationship with Vicky is now apparently based only on sex. Catcher realizes he can do something and writes a new exposé, "How Falling In Love With Barbara Novak Made Me A New Man". He learns there is an opening at Now and goes for an interview with her. There, he tells her how much she changed him, and it is obvious she wants him but turns him down anyway; he says he wished there could be a middle ground for them "somewhere between a blonde and a brunette", referring to her real persona, where she was a brunette.
As he is leaving her office, he realizes she is not coming after him, but she surprises him on the elevator, showing him a bright red hair style: she has found the middle ground and she wants to be with him. They fly to Las Vegas to get married, influencing Vicky and Peter, who also decide to get married.
The end credits show their marriage has resulted in a new book intended to end the battle of the sexes. The pair end by singing "Here's To Love".Renée Zellweger as Barbara Novak
Ewan McGregor as Catcher Block
Sarah Paulson as Vikki Hiller
David Hyde Pierce as Peter MacMannus
Rachel Dratch as Gladys
Jack Plotnick as Maurice
Tony Randall as Theodore Banner
John Aylward as E.G.
Warren Munson as C.B.
Matt Ross as J.B.
Michael Ensign as J.R.
Timothy Omundson as R.J.
Jeri Ryan as Gwendolyn
Ivana Miličević as Yvette
Melissa George as Elkie
The sets, costumes, cinematography, editing, score, opening credits, and visual effects (including split-screen shots during phone calls heavily laced with double entendres between the two leads), are carefully designed to echo the style of 1960s comedies. The New York City skyline of 1962 was digitally recreated for backdrops. A greenscreen technique was used to simulate unconvincing 1960s rear projection using restored street footage from the late 1950s and early 1960s. The film begins with the 1960s logos for 20th Century Fox and for CinemaScope, a wide-screen process introduced in the 1950s, developed and owned by 20th Century Fox. The Regency Enterprises logo is in pink, and contains a saxophone jazz rendition of its theme.
Down with Love was chosen as "the perfect film" to open the second Tribeca Film Festival where it made its premiere.
At the time of its release Down With Love received extremely varying reviews. A. O. Scott in The New York Times praised director "Reed's buoyant homage", Zellweger's Doris Day-like ability to "swivel engagingly between goofiness and sex appeal", McGregor's Sinatra-like "wiry, wolfish energy" and screenwriters Ahlert and Drake "canny cocktail of period vernacular and deliberately labored double entendres", finding the movie "intelligent and amusing" with "a glorious, hectic artificiality". But he questioned "the point of the exercise" compared to Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven which "plunged into the subtext of those old movies" whereas Down with Love, being an "updating and a critique", "snips that subtext away" making it "less sophisticated than what it imitates."
Conversely, The San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle wrote "Down With Love is superior to Far From Heaven" which "seems naive in comparison" because "Down with Love is a very smart, very shrewd movie, and the smartest, shrewdest thing about it is the way it masquerades as just a fluffy comedy, a diversion, a trifle. Hardly a trifle, Down With Love distills 40 years of sexual politics into 100 minutes, using the romantic-comedy conventions of an earlier time to comment on the governing social assumptions of yesterday -- and today, as well... The brilliance of Down With Love is that it slyly reminds us that our modern perspective, like every 'modern perspective' that preceded it, is doomed to obsolescence and isn't some final stage of enlightened social thought."
Opposing opinions even occurred at the same newspaper, as was the case with The New York Observer where Rex Reed's headline was "Down With Down With Love!" but Andrew Sarris's headline countered with "It’s Affectionate and Smart, And I’m Down With Love".
Richard Corliss of TIME admired Orlandi's costumes and Laws' design for their "giddily precise exaggeration" and wrote that the script "has a gentle heart to humanize its sharp sitcom wit" advising his readers to "stay for the movie's denouement: a two-minute speech that wraps up the plot like Christmas ribbons around a time bomb." But he found the film to be "miscast at the top" and "conflicted about its subject -- it both derides and adores what it means to parody" and that director "Reed often uses a gong where chimes would do". Corliss concludes "As you see, we too are conflicted about this film. We want to love it, but like a Rock Hudson rake, we keep finding fault in its allure. We want to hate it, but like Doris Day, we finally can't say no."
Nathan Rabin wrote "Chicago critics by and large embraced Down With Love", noting that "It got two thumbs up from Ebert & Roeper and was No. 2 on the top 10 list of Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum who called it a "masterpiece" and wrote "If a more interesting and entertaining Hollywood movie than Down with Love has come along this year, I've missed it."
In the years after its release Rabin, Rosenbaum in an updated piece and Richard Brody at The New Yorker are among the critics and film theorists that have continued to write in praise of the film.
Down with Love received 59 percent "Fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes. Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert spoke of the film fairly positively, saying parts were "fun", and describing Zellweger's speech at the end as "a torrent of words [pouring] out from her character's innermost soul". The film performed worse than expected, earning $40 million at the international box office.
The film's title comes from the song "Down with Love" as sung by Judy Garland, who is seen singing it on The Ed Sullivan Show in one scene.
The song "Here's to Love" sung by Zellwegger and McGregor during the closing credits (and in its entirety on the DVD release as a special feature) was a last-minute addition to the film. Songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman appear in the number as the bartender and the pianist. According to the DVD commentary, it was added at the suggestion of McGregor, who pointed out the opportunity the filmmakers had to unite the stars of two recently popular musical films (his Moulin Rouge! and Zellweger's Chicago).
The songs "Kissing a Fool" and "For Once in My Life", sung by Michael Bublé, previously appeared on Bublé's 2003 self-titled album.
- "Down with Love" – Michael Bublé and Holly Palmer
- "Barbara Arrives" – Marc Shaiman
- "Fly Me to the Moon (In Other Words)" – Frank Sinatra and Count Basie and His Orchestra
- "One Mint Julep" – Xavier Cugat and His Orchestra
- "For Once in My Life" – Michael Bublé
- "Girls Night Out" – Marc Shaiman
- "Everyday Is a Holiday With You" – Esthero
- "Kissing a Fool" – Michael Bublé
- "Barbara Meets Zip" – Marc Shaiman
- "Fly Me to the Moon (In Other Words)" – Astrud Gilberto
- "Love in Three Acts" – Marc Shaiman
- "Here's to Love" – Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor