"Neo and the rebel leaders estimate that they have 72 hours until 250,000 probes discover Zion and destroy it and its inhabitants. During this, Neo must decide how he can save Trinity from a dark fate in his dreams."

- Plot outline for The Matrix Reloaded, as seen on the Internet Movie Database

Boy, that sure sounds simple, doesn't it?

Yet as any true-blue Matrix fan will attest, the goings-on are far more intricate than that, so much so that I had to resort to studying the plot on the Internet to remember what actually happened in Reloaded. In truth, the details of the plot had left my brain on the trip from the auditorium to my car. I will freely admit that I just don't get what's going on here; give me four hours and a bottle of Merlot and I'll happily dissect the entire David Lynch canon, but I can't for the life of me comprehend this universe of the siblings (Andy and Larry) Wachowski. The Matrix films are a mixture of videogame mayhem, gravity-defying martial arts, sci-fi imperiousness, and quasi-religious portentousness, and those of us with a low tolerance for even one of those elements can easily find ourselves desperately out of sync with The Matrix's core audience. (For a thirtysomething movie geek, it's heartbreaking to have a film's nuances explained by someone half your age.)

Fans of 1999's original have anticipated The Matrix Reloaded like it was the Second Coming - which, with its religious overtones, it just might be - and to hear them talk, the movie is a magnificent experience. But what about the uninitiated? Can they - we - find any enjoyment here, considering that the work is avowedly Not for Us?

Surprisingly, yes. Much like last summer's Attack of the Clones, there are just enough remarkable sequences here to justify its length, and if the film's events aren't as easily digestible as they were in Clones, the effects are also far less shaky. The two scenes that everyone brings up - as well they should - are the magnificent battle between Neo (Keanu Reeves) and a seemingly endless supply of Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) clones, and a 15-minute chase scene near the finale, the dynamics of which must be seen to be believed. But these are merely the most obvious examples. Miraculous visuals are on display all throughout The Matrix Reloaded - there's a fascinating scene of Neo standing in front of hundreds of televised images of himself, each one subtly different - and so comprehension of the plot isn't really germane. The Wachowskis' work reminds us that film, first and foremost, is a visual medium, and resplendent visuals can overcome nearly all gripes. In the end, does it really matter that the first hour is logy, that the actors are wasted, or that Laurence Fishburne's Morpheus spouts an interminable series of sub-fortune-cookie homilies when The Matrix Reloaded is able to actually convince you that Keanu Reeves is a Superman?


Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger in Down with LoveDOWN WITH LOVE

Recently, Renee Zellweger's career path has led to her receiving kudos and Oscar nominations for roles that, it would seem, she's absurdly wrong for. Glum, overweight, British-to-her-teeth Bridget Jones? Trashy, vicious, beltin'-and-hoofin' Roxie Hart? Yet in both Bridget Jones's Diary and Chicago, Zellweger managed to assuage her detractors - well, most of her detractors - by attacking these questionable choices with gusto and confidence, all the while maintaining her essential aura of sweetness and, more importantly, genuineness; the fun in watching Zellweger's growing filmography is in seeing if there's anything she can't do. Well, her Chicago portrayal hinted at it, but with the romantic comedy Down with Love, we might have finally landed on Ms. Zellweger's Achilles' heel: She can't play stylized. (In her defense, there are certainly worse performance faults.)

As with Todd Haynes and his sublime Far from Heaven, Down with Love director Peyton Reed and screenwriters Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake find their inspiration in our movie past, specifically the Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedies of the late '50s and early '60s, in which old-fashioned romantic notions began to give way to the more "revolutionary" notion that men and women were equals in the battle of the sexes. The plot, set in a mythical New York of 1962, is the stuff of ingenious sex comedy: Small-town girl Barbara Novak (Zellweger) comes to Manhattan for the publication of her book - a self-empowerment guide for the single woman, wherein Novak insists that romantic love will hinder a woman's chance for true happiness - and clashes with "ladies' man/man's man/man about town" reporter Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor), who wants to disprove her feminist manifesto. Through a set of circumstances too labyrinthine to adequately detail, Block disguises himself as a well-mannered Southern astronaut in an attempt to woo her, seduce her, and show the world that Novak's "no romance" policy is bogus.

What with the perfect, albeit heightened, period design, the wink-wink naughtiness of the dialogue, and the intentional broadness of the performers, you'd hope that Down with Love would be a clever, even inspired, send-up - Far from Heaven as a farcical romp. And, sometimes, it is. Ahlert and Drake have a gift for plot convolutions that are almost Shakespearean in their daffy complexity - they include a late-film plot reversal that's both thoroughly unbelievable and ridiculously funny - and director Reed appears to be having a delightful time with the pastel-soaked, wildly choreographed madness of it all (though Marc Shaiman's musical score flagrantly underlines Reed's comic inventiveness). David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Paulson, as the leads' co-conspirators, are precise, first-rate caricatures, and the magnificent McGregor is the film's true ace-in-the-hole, giving a performance of such relaxed affability that you grin every time he's onscreen.

Would that he had a suitable match. But while McGregor has more than enough charisma to fill the Rock Hudson role - as he proved most spectacularly in Moulin Rouge, McGregor can play both stylized and heartfelt simultaneously - Renee Zellweger just isn't in his league. Her line readings all have that natural Zellweger ease, and in this case, that's not a good thing; she appears noticeably uncomfortable with the clipped rat-a-tat of the dialogue, and the air of submerged melancholy that guides her best performances seems radically out-of-place here. The role calls for someone who can pull off doe-eyed, virginal innocence and a will of steel - Winona Ryder, maybe, or, if the filmmakers skewed younger, Kirsten Dunst - yet, as with her Roxie Hart, you don't quite buy the act in Down with Love. It's the first time her miscasting has legitimately damaged the film itself. The movie has flaws beyond Zellweger - it's oftentimes forced, and, as Mike Myers got there first with the Austin Powers series, the concept isn't as clever as the filmmakers seem to think - but a half-inspired romantic-comedy coupling only results in a half-inspired romantic-comedy.

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