Retro romance without the flair

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As a concept, "Down With Love" sounds almost too good to be true.

Take a couple of thoroughly modern stars like Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor, deck them out in nifty clothes, and plop them into ritzy apartments.

Best of all, wrap them in a comic love story that mingles nostalgia for a more innocent past with celebration of the sophisticated present. Something for everyone!

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Alas, it is too good to be true.

I'd be as eager as the next moviegoer to see an updated version of the classic comedies - "Pillow Talk," "Lover Come Back" - wherein spunky Doris Day sparred with suave Rock Hudson, never quite surrendering to his charms before marriage loomed in the last scene.

But the world has changed a lot since the early 1960s, and integrating today's moods with the mores of that bygone era is trickier than it may seem.

While they make a valiant try, the makers of "Down With Love" flunk the test on almost every count.

Zellweger plays Barbara, an enterprising author who's penned a book with an audacious message for 1962. Women don't have to be wives and mommies, it preaches. Instead they can have careers, make money, and enjoy free-and-easy sex lives, just like their privileged male counterparts.

Barbara's publisher is convinced the book will sell. But to make certain, she wants the attractive writer to do a cover interview for a high-powered magazine.

This means cozying up to its editor, a playboy with a sweet smile and a superficial soul. He thinks Barbara's newfangled philosophy masks a craving for old-fashioned love, and he's determined to prove it.

That's just the sort of story the Day-Hudson duo would have starred in 40 years ago, when their romps seemed quite racy by the standards of their day.

Audiences are more wised up in 2003, of course, so director Peyton Reed and his collaborators juice up the picture with a lot more overt sexiness - or rather covert sexiness, since it's coyly conveyed by leering allusions, vulgar sight gags, and an endless supply of smarmy double entendres.

This self-conscious crassness would be bad enough if it were presented with style and flair, but it isn't. Beneath its color-drenched images and vintage wide-screen cinematography lurks a flatly written script directed with a lack of gracefulness and imagination.

Add a total lack of chemistry between the stars - neither of whom is particularly good at romantic comedy in the first place - and you have a promising package that grows steadily less lovable as it goes along. Down with this movie!

Rated PG-13; contains visual and verbal vulgarity.

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