Down with Love
A 2003 NicksFlickPicks Honoree in One Category!
Director: Peyton Reed. Cast: Renée Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, David Hyde Pierce, Sarah Paulson, Tony Randall. Screenplay: Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake.

The Good Thief

Director: Neil Jordan. Cast: Nick Nolte, Tchéky Karyo, Saïd Taghmaoui, Nutsa Kukhianidze, Gérard Darmon, Ouassini Embarek, Marc Lavoine, Emir Kusturica, Mark Polish, Michael Polish, Sarah Bridges, Ralph Fiennes. Screenplay: Neil Jordan (based on the film Bob le flambeur (1955), directed by Jean-Pierre Melville and written by Jean-Pierre Melville and Auguste Le Breton).

Contrary to popular belief, film remakes are not always a terrible thing. In recent years alone, Martin Scorsese brought Guignol gusto and a sharply revised notion of the nuclear family to his revision of Cape Fear; Gus Van Sant turned his verbatim reprise of Hitchcock's Psycho into a heady (and still scary) theoretical riff; and Steven Soderbergh took the god-awful Rat Pack version of Ocean's Eleven and slicked it up into a gorgeous, efficient meditation on group-coordination and style as a way of life. Sometimes, even if the film as a whole is disposable, it still allows a modern performer to have a whirl in a beloved role, as Eddie Murphy did so hilariously in The Nutty Professor.

The actual problem with most remakes is not that they are inherently futile, but that they are not inherently anything at all. Disregarding the fact that Hollywood has recently shown a perverse wish to re-mount old spectacles that few people miss (The In-Laws, The Out-of-Towners, The Mod Squad), and that many so-called remakes see no real reason to actually approximate their inspirations (I Spy, S.W.A.T.), it should be clear by now that the mere recycling of old ideas, even good ideas, is not a sure-fire sign of more good things to come. If the audience really did cherish the original, we expect all the johnny-come-latelies to really prove their mettle; if we didn't care for (or care about) the predecessor, the new film arrives to us with a heavy burden of proof—why did they bother?

Neither Neil Jordan's The Good Thief nor Peyton Reed's Down with Love was a particularly bad film, but they both founder on that "why did they bother?" question. Jordan, ostensibly updating Jean-Pierre Melville's 1956 art-heist caper Bob le flambeur, but just as surely copying the recipe of his own Mona Lisa, has created a film that is too loaded with formal ironies, and yet too blasé to do anything about them. The whole plot of The Good Thief revolves around the attempt to steal some paintings from a Monte Carlo casino—not the elegant reproductions hanging in the gambling rooms, mind you, but the venerable originals, locked up in a vault. The best and the worst thing to be said about The Good Thief is that it's clearly more of a crap-table reproduction itself than a serious work of art. This is not a movie that anyone would steal, and the filmmakers know it. It's a film that only exists, as far as I can tell, to remind us of an older, more valued movie that's lying somewhere out of sight.

So a lot of talented and semi-talented people loaf around doing superficially pleasing work that a single good night's sleep can erase from memory. Nick Nolte, whose spirits must lift with each new script that requires a gravelly-voiced old shoe to chase some inner demon, fills the central role of Bob, the inveterate gambler with more than one addiction he's trying to renounce. Saïd Taghmaoui, of La haine and Hideous Kinky, has a showcased supporting role as a henchman of Nolte's who can't always keep his priorities straight. A whole train of modish Euro-stars and indie fledglings pass through the action, like comets dimly seen: Ralph Fiennes as a hot-triggered buyer, the Polish brothers as stone-faced casino employees, Emir Kusturica as an alarm-systems expert who likes to wail out Pola X-ish feedback from his electronic guitar. A sleepy-eyed newcomer called Nutsa Kukhianidze is in the Cathy Tyson role as the slatternly dish who finds a mentor/savior/lothario in Old Nick; much has been made of her performance, but for all I could tell she was just a reasonably alert actress who gets caught in a boring part we've seen a thousand times. Meanwhile, cinematographer Chris Menges, who made his name on panoramic stuff like The Killing Fields and The Mission but has long since migrated to grittier, harsher fare, pours lots of indigo light on everyone and has fun with some white/fluorescent contrasts that make the whole movie look like dirty neon.

All of this happens, and at the same time, nothing happens. Bob le flambeur and Mona Lisa aside, if you've seen any movie with remotely this plot, you pretty much know exactly what's going to transpire. The liveliest stuff in the movie—Nolte's lashed-to-the-bed comedown from hard drugs and his later reincarnation as an unflappable, tuxedoed charmer—stand almost totally apart from the "busy" actions of heist planning, heist slip-ups, and heist finale that occupy most of the running time. Both Nolte and his character emerge intact from this exercise, but was there truly nothing better a romantic street-poet like Jordan could think to do with his star?

Down with Love is a lot more fun than The Good Thief, partly because the whole enterprise is premised on being more fun than movies like The Good Thief. Perky, perky, perky. The tone and spirit of Down with Love seem well-suited to director Peyton Reed, who debuted to moviegoers three years ago with the insouciant cheerleading comedy Bring It On. The new film, a self-conscious throwback to the Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedies of the late '50s and early '60s, is all plastic surfaces, natty fabrics, and Mattel colors, and all four of the principals have terrific cheeks. (The women's curve, the men's are high-boned.) Like Bring It On, the new movie isn't fussy exactly, or rather it manages to put over a fussy enterprise with a convincingly carefree air—it doesn't try to kill you with its popping visuals, like 8 Women did, and the comedic narrative stays light and fastpaced, without trying to compete with the grandness of the designs. In fact, the only thing that really pulls all these coordinated skirt-and-jacket ensembles and dreamworld Manhattan lofts together is the actors' blithe unconcern with all of it. It's our job to be wowed by the scenery; they only care about scoring the right mate, which is as it should be.

But even if Down with Love is animated and diverting—Ewan McGregor seems to love sauntering around in a role he's almost too reedy for, and some of the visual and audio grace-notes made me chuckle aloud—nonetheless, there's the sense that no one quite believes in what they're doing. Maybe it's the long string of scenes at the film's end, which are wearying in their serial cuteness, like a mile-long parade of little ducklings. Or maybe it's the way that the pseudo-logic of the plot reversals work okay from scene to scene, and yet from the larger perspective, the characters seem totally unrecognizable by the finale when compared to how they started. McGregor's cureless lothario is a little too happy to be knocked off his pedestal, and Renée Zellweger's highly ambivalent proto-feminist tosses away global fame and a life's worth of cunning ambition with barely a flip of her turned-out tresses. (We discover she's even more calculating than we thought—much more—but, at virtually the same time, she becomes infinitely less confident and grounded than we thought: who is this woman?)

No one in the cast is hitting any kind of career peak in Down with Love, though the fresh face of Sarah Paulson as Zellweger's best friend augurs good character work to come. And Reed hasn't encountered a sophomore slump, really, though he's not quite up to his own standards. If anyone's got the wrong idea here, I think it's producers Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks, who've been hiding out somewhere since copping a pair of Best Picture Oscars for their first major project, American Beauty . . . speaking of films whose stylistic exuberance seems more and more empty as the minutes go by. These guys excel at fashioning pictures that look great in still photographs, and they have a knack for recruiting qualified, saleable talent who don't cost much. That's modern producing, kid. Still, I do get the sense that the brainstorming meetings for Down with Love were giddier than the wrap-up party, and the design sketches more fun than the finished product, and the idea of mimicking Doris and Rock more an understandable temptation than a strictly necessary impulse. Like The Good Thief, Down with Love isn't a failure, but it's the sort of thing you only see because not much else is playing. And sure, you might feel let down as you leave the theater, but don't worry—you'll forget the whole affair by tomorrow. Grades: Down with Love: B–; The Good Thief: C

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