Sunday, December 5, 2010

Love and Other Drugs (**1/2)

Directed by Edward Zwick


You don't see many mainstream American films that are as open about sex as Love and Other Drugs, and for that alone, I guess the film deserves some credit. Of course, it's a little easier to get away with making a film about sex, when your two leads are as fabulously beautiful as Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway. America loves beautiful people, they love beautiful naked people, and they especially enjoy two beautiful naked people having sex with each other (remember when Julia Roberts married Lyle Lovett?). But is Love and Other Drugs really about sex? Is it just a crutch to get people interested in the film? If that's what it's about, why isn't it called 'Sex and Other Drugs'? I'm not totally sure about any of those questions, and I'm not sure that the movie itself knows either.

The film takes place in 1996. We know this immediately because the film opens with the song "Two Sisters" by The Spin Doctors (major movie pet peeve: obvious soundtrack choices). There's Jamie Randall (Gyllenhaal) working at a consumer electronics store. He's flirty with the female customers (of all ages), chummy with the male customers, and overall a pretty shameless salesman with a very ample talent for charming people into smiling. Is he particularly good at selling things? Not really, but he's exceptional at using that charm to sleep with women. Before the end of his work day, he'll be fired for sleeping with his co-worker (and his boss' girlfriend)... in the store's stock room. It's obvious that his main focus in life is finding physical love with many, many women. It seems to get in the way of the development in the other aspects of his life.

Unemployed, he decides to become a pharmaceutical representative at Pfizer, doing his best to sell Zoloft to doctors who are more interested in, you know, helping people. He's mentored by Bruce (Oliver Platt), an eccentric, Tumms-chugging sales veteran in pharmaceuticals who thinks Jamie is the key to the top of the business. Eventually, Jamie uses his greatest gift (his libido) to get his foot in the door with Dr. Knight (Hank Azaria) who's willing to sell Zoloft instead of main rival Prozac if Jamie is able to get him some quality women (I'd like to think that this is an area in the film that is poorly generalized, but in the Age of Cynicism, I don't think I can be too confident in that). When Jamie poses as an intern when Dr. Knight goes in to see a patient, Jamie meets Maggie Murdock (Hathaway). She says she needs a renewal on her Parkinson's medication and would also like Dr. Knight to examine a spot on her breast, and Jamie isn't shy about peeking in on the examination.

Very, very soon afterward, Maggie discovers Jamie's fraudulence and attacks him in the parking lot. Their tension resolves itself quickly, though, as they escape to Maggie's apartment and have very tempestuous sex on her floor. At first, it's simply a physical relationship, with Maggie pulling away every time Jamie tries to treat her like some kind of girlfriend. She keeps her distance knowing soon enough that he'll be uninterested once her Parkinson's becomes more prevalent between them. A new drug is introduced at Pfizer, rumored to help men who have trouble performing in bed. Yes, Viagara. Bruce thinks Jamie is the guy to sell it, and pretty soon, Jamie is at the top of the drug market. He tries to hang on to Maggie and have her accompany him on the springboard to success, but she has her doubts. Now, Jamie finds himself choosing between a skyrocketing career and a woman he may be falling madly in love with.

I'm totally sure that Viagara would even be in this film if the script weren't a technical adaptation of the Jamie Reidy book, "Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagara Salesman". I'll simply claim ignorance when it comes to my knowledge of Reidy's book, but I will say this: if his book is anywhere near as vapid on the issues of the ethics of pediatricians or the reality of living with Parkinson's Disease, then I will have to say that this is a book that is terribly drab. Sure, Love and Other Drugs does contain a much-needed scene where Maggie attends a meeting with a collection of people sharing their own personal suffering at the hand of Parkinson's. It's the only time when the film truly embraces the disease - until then it's really only a tertiary plot point that occasionally makes cameos between montages of Jamie distributing boxes of boner pills. Sure, there are a few finger tremors from Maggie, but there's not much else.

And then there's the character of Josh; Jamie's fat, obnoxious brother. The role is played by Josh Gad, who is a bit of a Jonah Hill look-a-like and fills the character with such boorish, inane piggishness. Because director Ed Zwick felt the film needed a punch of immaturity, Josh finds his way into Jamie's life after getting kicked out by his wife. He sleeps on Jamie's couch, but gives the film such a high number of disruptions that his very existence in this story could be questioned. Which is the film's central issue: too often, it finds itself tied between the boyish, laugh-a-minute sincerity of Judd Apatow and the swaying romanticism and melodrama of Cameron Crowe. The overall identity of this film is mystifying to me, because it's blending of raunch and victorianism made the movie feel totally off balance. When we're finally getting into the thick of Maggie and Jamie's relationship, we don't need a scene of tubby Josh masturbating to a home video of them having sex. But we get it nonetheless.

But there are certain things in Love and Other Drugs that work very well, including the performances from Hathaway and Gyllenhaal. Their ability to overcome the seemingly shallow way that the film covers subjects such as degenerative disease and the medical process says a lot about their ability. There is a dangerous imbalance between the comedy and the drama, but the two actors never fall into the awkwardness. Gyllenhaal has never been more charming, and even though Jamie is a real shitheel to start the film, his transformation doesn't feel too hokey - though he owes the script no favors for that. Hathaway, already established as one of the finest American screen actresses of her generation, has one of her more adventurous roles. The fact that the two have exquisite chemistry together doesn't hurt, because the film's greatest moments usually involve the two of them on the screen together.

A lot of the lukewarm reviews have singled out the performance of Josh Gad as the thing that neuters the film's effect. That is a bit unfair, because for all the indelicacy that Gad brings, he does do what he's asked to do: bring sophomoric humor. And I'd be lying if I said he didn't make me chuckle here and there. But his performance is a microcosm of where this film goes astray: it's screenplay. It wants to be Knocked Up and Terms of Endearment and Jerry Maguire all wrapped up into one, and by making all those tones balanced, the film itself becomes unbalanced. That said, I still like the concept of a studio film embracing its own liberal sexuality, but the issue is that Love and Other Drugs doesn't always embrace it. A small part of Zwick's film still wants to be the safe, adorable romantic comedy that appeals to a broad audience. You can't have it both ways.

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