One thing I’ll say for Love and Other Drugs (20th Century Fox): It doesn’t feel like any other romantic comedy of recent years or, really, any romantic comedy I can think of. Though the film partakes in its share of the genre’s clichés (including one character’s last-act revelation that he or she truly loves another character after all, and must race across town to find him or her), it rarely inspires a fed-up eye roll. The expression it engenders is more of a quizzical knit brow.
What exactly is director and screenwriter Edward Zwick—co-creator of thirtysomethingand My So-Called Life, whose last film was the WWII thriller Defiance—up to in this combination love story/medical drama/Big Pharma satire/raunchy sex comedy? Careening from bathos to bromance to naked sexytime, the movie is like a mashup of three or four different movies, at least two of them fairly unpleasant. And yet Love and Other Drugs is so sincere and unjaded about its mystifying purpose that it keeps our gaze fixed on the screen for the full two hours. Or maybe that’s just Anne Hathaway’s nude body.
Hathaway’s body is a perfectly acceptable reason to plunk down a ten-spot for this movie. Not only is it gorgeous—in a lanky-yet-voluptuous way you would probably never have guessed without the, er, access this movie provides—but Hathaway’s face engages the camera like nobody’s since early Julia Roberts. (Hathaway doesn’t particularly resemble Roberts, but they share a toothiness and a luminescence.) The movie’s attitude toward nudity is almost European in its casualness: In Hathaway’s first scene she undergoes a breast exam, and just when you expect the camera to cut away demurely—pop! She yanks up her shirt and gives both doctor and audience a peek. The movie’s unprurient randiness is one of its more lovable qualities; unlike most Hollywood films about two people falling in love, it acknowledges how big a part plain old-fashioned good sex plays in the process.
Good sex is especially important for the protagonists of Love and Other Drugs, because it’s one of their few ways of connecting successfully with other humans. Neither Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal) nor Maggie Murdock (Hathaway) is your typical please-love-me rom-com character. Jamie is a fast-talking sales rep for Pfizer. It’s the mid-’90s, and Jamie’s days are spent pestering doctors to start prescribing Zoloft rather than Prozac as their antidepressant of choice. (The movie’s portrait of the pharmaceutical industry is loosely based on a nonfiction book by a former Pfizer rep.) He’s not having a lot of luck with the doctors, but he’s cleaning up with their female receptionists and nurses—apparently all Jamie has to do is buy a woman flowers and ply her with patently insincere pickup lines, and she vaults into his bed. Jamie’s slick charm is shown to us, right from the opening scene, as a transparently fake cover-up for his ambition and greed. He’s not a bad guy at heart, but he’s clearly damaged, and not in an appealing puppy-dog way.
Hathaway’s Maggie also departs from the rom-com template of niceness: She’s sexually aggressive, dirty-mouthed, reflexively sarcastic, and often self-pitying. Granted, Maggie has good reason to feel sorry for herself: At 26, she’s been diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s, and she’s staring down an unknown future that could include dementia and paralysis. When she meets Jamie at her doctor’s office, she winds up in bed with him because she recognizes him as a kindred spirit, a fellow commitment-averse slut. And that’s exactly the relationship they pursue, shagging Fatal Attraction-style against the kitchen sink and then repairing to their separate apartments, until Maggie’s sickness gets worse and they begin, to their mutual horror, to care about one another.
But wait! Then Viagra is invented—we’d be in 1998 now—and the movie shifts gears into raucous sex comedy as Jamie becomes an overnight success, a high-living enabler of orgy enthusiasts and lubricious doctors (one of them played by an underused Hank Azaria). Oh, and Maggie attends a meeting of an advocacy group for Parkinson’s patients and is inspired by the many high-functioning people she meets. Are we supposed to shed a tear for the sick girl, cheer on the activists, or laugh at the guy with a four-hour erection? In a way, it’s to Zwick’s credit that he expects us to have all three feelings, and a few others besides. In its best moments Love and Other Drugs can have a James L. Brooksian amplitude of spirit. Unfortunately, there are long stretches in between when the movie just feels glib, sprawling, and confused.
Though their characters are drawn in richer detail than your usual Hollywood cutouts, Jamie and Maggie don’t make that much sense, either together or apart. If Maggie really is as disgusted by the pharmaceutical industry as she claims, why does she cheer Jamie on as he makes a killing on the Viagra craze? Why do we learn virtually nothing about Maggie’s family, while Jamie gets a whole scene with his clan? (His family is headed up by the late Jill Clayburgh, who appears, looking heartbreakingly lovely, as his mother in an early scene.) How come Oliver Platt appears once every 20 minutes as a character we’re supposed to care about, but never gets a moment to establish his backstory?
Looking back on Love and Other Drugs, I’m not even sure whether I can recommend it or not. It contains some “get me out of here” moments, many of them involving the character of Jamie’s fat, nerdy brother (Josh Gad), but it also packs some powerful scenes between Hathaway and Gyllenhaal. Hathaway’s performance is the showier one—she gets the trembling hands and the emotional breakdowns—but Gyllenhaal’s is in its way more impressive, since he has the tougher job of turning an initially repellent character into a credible romantic hero.
Is there anyone out there who remembers Edward Zwick’s first feature film, About Last Night… (1986)? It was a loose adaptation of a David Mamet play in which Rob Lowe and Demi Moore, just grown out of their St. Elmo’s phase, played a pair of hard-partying young adults in Chicago who took a long time to realize that, beneath their veneer of studied indifference, they actually were made for each other. Jim Belushi and Elizabeth Perkins played their loyal, wisecracking seconds (and were both completely great—possibly the only time I’ve loved Jim Belushi in a role). Though I’m sure it would look corny and dated in retrospect, I have curiously fond memories of About Last Night…, which, like this movie, is about two very specific and not always admirable characters falling reluctantly in love. See Love and Other Drugs, wait 24 years, then get back to me.