When faced with the prospect of watching a film that would by all metrics be classified as a “romantic comedy” you could do a lot worse than Love & Other Drugs. The film, directed by Ed Zwick and starring Jake Gyllenhall and Anne Hathaway has all the earmarks of your typical rom-com; the quirky lust-at-first-site meeting, the new love, the separation, the tearful reunion… it’s all there. Layered on top of the very standard structure though, is a thick coat of more interesting and more engaging elements. They don’t all work exactly, but the filmmaking is top notch, as Ed Zwick is more than capable of filming the relationship between two people in a gentle, respectful fashion, even if the script never quite lives up to it’s lofty subject matter.
Taking place in the mid/late 90s USA when we were still blissfully unaware of the cataclysms being wrought by our country’s habits, Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal) is existing as the quintessential 90s twenty-something. He’s a charming, good-looking, and extremely competent human being who is pretty much solely interested in chasing tail and buying increasingly expensive crap. Very quickly into the start of the film we see him fired from his electronics-hocking salesman job (naturally, because of endearing sexual mischief) and we take stock of his family. He comes from a clan of wealthy doctors, and his slob of a brother has been recently made rich from a software deal. Faced with a tradition of success, he decides to jump into the pharmaceutical-hocking business with an obscure (to the public anyway) drug company called Pfizer. It’s all so very 90s. We get the whiz-bang montages of his intense, morally questionable training as a salesman and very quickly he’s in the world of pharmaceutical sales, which is obviously more about networking and favors than the merit of the drugs.
The movie crams a ton of set-up for Gyllenhaal’s character into a short amount of time so they can get to him shadowing a doctor to finally meet Maggie (Hathaway). A matter-of-fact and quirky artist, Maggie and Jamie meet in a doctor’s office and while it’s not love at first site exactly, the two immediately enter a sort of combative relationship based entirely on their mutual desire for easy, stringless lays. You can guess that things get more emotional from there.
What makes Love & Other Drugs different than most movies of the sort is that backdrop of the 90s pharmaceutical industry allows the film to dig into some of the nastier practices of that culture. It also sets the stage for some reflections on the modern healthcare environment. Finally, it turns out that Maggie suffers from early-onset Parkinson’s, which is the reason for her carefree sex-life and emotional distance. These are big subjects, and I’ll grant the film that it treats them all delicately and with respect. Unfortunately it’s also biting off more than it can chew, and much of the healthcare industry talk feels shoehorned or just blatantly obvious. I wouldn’t expect the film to stand on any soapboxes, but it tackles the subjects too directly to get away with such shallow commentary. The Parkinson’s aspect of the film is handled much better, and leads to truly excellent sequence at a large meeting of Parkinson’s sufferers and their family. By this time Jamie is dealing with the ramifications of being with someone with the disease, and a scene he shares with an older man who has been married to a woman with Parkinson’s for a number of years is heart-breaking and honest. That scene captures a poignancy and truth throws much of the rest of the film, with its cheap viagra jokes and stupid fat virgin jokes, into an unflattering light.
Many of those bad jokes comes from Jamie’s millionaire brother Josh, who lives on Jamie’s couch for reasons that are thinly believable, even if he is a pretty dedicated loser. Josh Gad is playing an almost slapstick loser here, and the contrast between him and his over-sexed super attractive brother are obvious, annoying, and don’t really match the tone of humor struck between Hathaway and Gylenhaal or the tone of seriousness from the rest of the film. It’s an odd sore thumb, but a big one. Hank Azaria fairs a little better as a slightly scummy doctor that obviously means well, but doesn’t have the guts or the ability to stay completely ethical within the system. Oliver Platt plays Jamie’s salesman partner/mentor, but is completely wasted, appearing in scenes inconsistently, with an insubstantial arc that gets paid off more as an after-thought.
The highlight of the film is definitely Jamie and Maggie’s relationship, even if the characterization tends towards the one-sided. There is a legitimate chemistry between the two leads, and the filmmaker’s decision to be frank and adult about the sexuality plays well. There is a whole lot of A-list flesh on display in Love & Other Drugs, and it’s to Zwick’s credit that it does feel natural. There is that exciting sexual sense of new love on display in each scene, and you peel back a layer of character with every peeled back layer of clothing. Unfortunately the opening act set-up that gives us such a strong look at Randall’s character, combined with the movie’s continuing focus on him, means that Maggie never quite breaks out of being the noble, matter-of-fact handicapped archetype, even though Anne Hathaway imbues her with a great deal of heart and beauty. The imbalance of character is definitely a script problem, and the two actors give what could be career-best performances in spite of it. Zwick and his cinematographer are obviously aware how gorgeous this couple is, and they shoot them with an admiring lens. This extends to this rest of the film as well, which is full of warm texture and rich contrast. It’s the prettiest romantic comedy I’ve seen in some time.
When the climax ends up involving a frantic chase after a soon-to-be-departed partner, you realize that this script really relies only on engaging tough subjects to escape the mold of the usual trite rom-com. The whole thing couldn’t have been more cliche if the two characters reunited in an airport before somebody flew off on a plane… That kind of thing reduces the movie at the skeletal level, but the performances and filmmaking are admirably high-class and strong enough that you can take something from it regardless. Love & Other Drugs isn’t a revolutionary take on romance or comedy, much less corporate tut-tutting, but it’s a date movie that isn’t going to insult you, and will sometimes impress you.