DOWN TO YOU: A Millennial Romance (2000 in Film #3)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

To begin, released over the weekend of January 21st, Kris Isacsson’s romantic comedy Down to You

In many respects, Down to You must have seemed like a slam dunk of a proposition in 1999, with the hottest new production studio in Miramax front-lining two recognisable fresh faces from hit movies in a teen baiting romantic comedy. From our vantage point, produced as it is by the Weinstein brothers, it leaves a sourer taste in the mouth. 

It isn’t fair to blame writer/director Kris Isacsson, this being his only feature, or stars Freddie Prinze. Jr or Julia Stiles. Nor indeed is Down to You a horrendous movie through our modern, proportionally liberal-minded prism – indeed in many respects it’s quite a sweet natured picture with it’s heart in the right place. It is, however, cynical; attempting to both cash-in on the traditional romantic comedy genre and the revived interest in the teen movie, thanks heavily to 1999’s mega hit American Pie. While Down to You is not a gross-out comedy from exactly the same ilk, by any means, it is impossible to divorce it from the trends of an era where Miramax were combining their indie sensibility with pop-culture hits and brewing them up with attractive, young stars of the day, principally for the purposes of profit.

Down to You was the biggest box office hit of the January weekend it was released but very quickly collapsed in on itself, not even making back its modest, if not entirely threadbare, budget. You can honestly see why.

The open question is quite who the major audience draw was going in to Down to You: Prinze Jr or Stiles. Without a recognisable director with pedigree behind the production, everything about this teen vehicle was about the stars. So where were they in early 2000?

While Stiles had dabbled in critical acclaim for 1998’s Wicked (as a possibly psychotic teenage murderer), and appeared in small roles M. Night Shyalaman’s pre-fame film Wide Awake and as Harrison Ford’s daughter in Alan J. Pakula’s final movie The Devil’s Own, she rocketed to prominence as the tetchy Kat Stratford in 10 Things I Hate About You in 1999, opposite fellow breakout star Heath Ledger. Prinze Jr, meanwhile, came up through the post-modern, post-Scream horror boom in I Know What You Did Last Summer and its sequel, before dabbling much like Stiles in the teen romance arena with Pygmalion loose remake, She’s All That in 1999. You can see why Miramax would plot to put them together, especially as Prinze. Jr was also the beau of the equally popular teen idol Sarah Michelle Gellar aka Buffy the Vampire Slayer herself. Theoretically, they were box office alchemy. The reality ends up being something quite different. From the off, Prinze. Jr and Stiles are stifled by a frequently awful script from Isacsson, riddled with cliches and cod-psychology, not to mention muddled character motivations. 

Ostensibly, Down to You is about finding true love too early, portraying the traditional Western teenage ups and downs of college relationships. While Stiles is age appropriate, Prinze. Jr has to play his age down (he was around 22 at the time) and mostly succeeds, but his aspiring chef Al is frankly as square and boring as Stiles’ Imogen accuses him at one point of being. Isacsson uses a clumsy, often teenage-drama performance fourth wall breaking continuous delivery to camera from both main stars later in life to tell the story of how they met, broke up and eh, you can guess the rest. It’s the kind of narrative technique a teenager, appropriately, would believe is innovative and profound when in reality it’s just corny and lacking in much in the way of comedic or dramatic tension. I work with teenagers so I really don’t mean to disparage them, but believe me I’ve seen plenty of teen drama performances over the years and, well… there’s a reason Down to You needed a few more passes through a script editor. 

Isacsson surrounds the likeable but uptight Al and sensible but carefree Imogen with an array of sub-American Pie characters, many of whom simply wouldn’t exist in the real world – the loser who thinks he’s hot, the free spirit friend, the sultry femme fatale, and particularly Monk – the supposedly sage, eccentric best friend who is also, somehow, a successful porn star, who comes out with such pearls as: “Look at that park down there! Just think of how many loves lost and found, how many first kisses kissed. How many Frisbees lost. And just remember… that is *your* park, my friend. And you’ve got your whole life to walk through it”. Imagine having to deliver that, like Zak Orth (who was, embarrassingly, almost 30 by this point) does, with a straight face. “It’s not the meaning of life, Alfred, it’s the feeling of life” he tells him at one point, bafflingly, like some kind of tribute act Yoda. Down to You is full of awkward, improbable and downright embarrassing lines such as that which the cast have to try and pull off.

Primarily because while Down to You does have comedic elements, it ultimately isn’t technically a comedy. It’s not broad like American Pie, and nothing in it has the bravura charm of Ledger singing karaoke on the steps as in 10 Things. Isacsson is trying to make a profound statement on love and particularly masculinity in relation to it. This is where you wonder about the Weinstein influence because Down to You doesn’t always seem in on its own joke. A telling scene sees Al, struggling to sexually satisfy Imogen who is anxious at the possibility she may be pregnant, dream about his masculine failures through the prism of ‘The Man Show’, a talk show hosted by toxic males, with an audience full of them, who berate him for his sensitivity. Al even meets Imogen when Monk challenges their clueless friend Eddie to sleep with a freshman (played by a pre-fame Rosario Dawson) when Al is reticent. Selma Blair’s Cyrus purely exists as a sexual cypher. It’s full of that kind of toxicity.

You can’t even really argue that Imogen is a well-written, strong female co-lead who exposes all of these toxic flaws, even if you feel Isacsson is trying clumsily to reach for them. She sleeps with a painfully embarrassing Jim Morrison-impersonator (a young, mercifully dialogue free Ashton Kutcher) after rejecting Al’s steady sensitive vulnerability, and spends most of the film firing off zingers like “Cake is my world”. We’re a far cry from Kat Stratford here and Stiles gamely pushes her way through a role you can sense she’s not entirely the right fit for. She looks far more comfortable two years from now in The Bourne Identity. Prinze. Jr meanwhile simply looks a little baffled, like a trainee Keanu Reeves, allowing the role to wash over him. He is at least comforting in how relaxed a performer he is, even if he never sets the screen alight.

Ultimately, Down to You is relationship wish fulfilment, a post-college fantasy of a relationship which wants to be grown up, but is stifled by its own immaturity – much like Kris Isacsson’s writing. His film feels anxious about its position as a treatise on youthful, masculine maturity (or so it wants to believe) in a decade which will continue challenging those norms. It won’t be long before American Pie feels painfully out of date and subsequent sequels being dying on their arse. 10 Things I Hate About You inverted Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew to depict a youthful relationship built on equality with a maturity which outreaches Down to You’s attempted progressive gaze. Isacsson’s film has the right intentions but simply the wrong execution.

Not in any way a harmful or distasteful film, however clumsy it might be, Down to You is simply entirely forgettable, and much poorer for sitting in the shadow of Gil Junger’s immensely superior examination of teenage love. You half wonder if even Freddie Prinze. Jr and Julia Stiles have forgotten this one.

Read the previous 2000 in Film pieces here:

1 – The Hurricane

2 – Next Friday

Leave a Reply