(by Dustin Putman
One part corporate slice-of-life, another part romantic dramedy, "Love & Other Drugs" suffers when placed next to the movie it most reminds of, 2009's very similar, far superior "Up in the Air." That film, directed by Jason Reitman, worked on multiple levels. It was a touching human drama, a bittersweet love story, a stirring character study, and an insightful comment on the world we live in as seen from the perspective of a professional downsizer and the suddenly laid-off victims he leaves in his wake. By comparison, "Love & Other Drugs" doesn't seem to have much to say at all, its intentions getting lost in a poorly focused, sharply uneven narrative. Writer-director Edward Zwick (2006's "Blood Diamond") and co-writers Charles Randolph (2005's "The Interpreter") and Marshall Herskovitz (2003's "The Last Samurai") carry with them impressive filmographies that make their lacking, exceedingly conventional ploys all the more disappointing. No amount of sex and nudity—and there is a lot of both, especially by major studio standards—shields this fact. Article continues below
The year is 1996. Fired from his last job at an electronic store for sleeping with his customers while still on the clock, smooth-talking mover and shaker Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal) hopes to get his life together and subsequently nabs a fortuitous job as a Pfizer pharmaceuticals rep, traveling around and selling Prozac and Zoloft to healthcare professionals. While shadowing one such client, Dr. Knight (Hank Azaria), Jamie meets beautiful patient Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), an early-onset Parkinson's sufferer at only 26 years of age. Their relationship starts rocky, then turns strictly sexual, with Maggie making it clear that she doesn't need any romantic attachments. A womanizer practically by trade, Jamie is okay with this setup until genuine feelings starts to get in the way. As Jamie softens, so does Maggie, but she's also keenly aware that her incurable disease is only going to get worse. It's a heavy burden to place on someone else, and she's not sure that Jamie, whose career is taking off with the release of new drug Viagra, realizes just what is in store for them if things develop beyond the short-term.
Based on the book "Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman" by Jamie Reidy, "Love & Other Drugs" is tonally and subjectively off-kilter. The material between Jamie and Maggie is definitely the best part, not because they develop a strong detectable connection but because Anne Hathaway (2010's "Alice in Wonderland") is so wonderful on screen. She's the kind of charismatic, emotionally honest actor whom you wouldn't mind watching silently read the phone book. That's good, because Maggie is otherwise defined strictly by her disease and fear of commitment. Living in a loft on an apparent coffee shop salary, she is never seen interacting with family or any friends to speak of (though a mother is mentioned passingly in the dialogue). If Maggie is undernourished in a script that relies too much on music montage sequences to further the plot and close-ups of her shaky hands to spell out her personal conflict, then it is all the more a testament to Hathaway that she is able to turn her character into such a viable, sympathetic life force. A scene in which Maggie tags along with Jamie to a medical convention and finds herself sitting in on a support group for people with Parkinson's is certainly affecting—it's as good as this movie gets, with Maggie suddenly set free by the realization that she's not alone in her fight—but it would be better within a different story that pays more attention to her.
Jake Gyllenhaal (2010's "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time") is a fine performer in his own right—he is in nearly every scene, and it is his Jamie Randall that we follow—but his role is more difficult to latch onto, not outright likable as much as he is charming as a means of getting his way. Portrayed at the onset as kind of sleazy, Jamie miraculously gets a pharma sales rep job without a college degree or, really, any past experience in that particular market. His bedroom activities are frequent, but when he meets Maggie he abruptly becomes a changed man only interested in her. There's nothing at all wrong with a steamy sex scene or two, but director Edward Zwick goes overboard with them here, spending so much time with Jamie and Maggie in the throes of passion that he forgets to depict them on a much deeper level than that. What is it about each other that signifies they are worth changing their ways for? What are their common interests? If Jamie and Maggie aren't having sex, they are usually trying to come to terms with Maggie's ailment, thus leaving little room for anything else that might endear the viewer to their relationship.
As for the rest of "Love & Other Drugs" centering on Jamie's work life and his relationship with unemployed younger brother Josh (Josh Gad), it's just plain obnoxious and goes nowhere of note. Setting the picture in the latter half of the 1990s has only one purpose—to coincide with the creation of Viagra—but this doesn't have any bearing on the other parts of the story. There is no insight into the pharma sales business, nor an emotional throughline other than the flimsy threat of having to move out of town when Jamie is assigned to Chicago. Attempts at broad, even raunchy, comedy stick out in an embarrassing way; it's unfunny, yes, but also pandering to a potential audience who won't have any interest in what surrounds the penis and masturbation jokes.
Supporting characters are supremely annoying, too. Jamie's brother, Josh, crashes at his place when his girlfriend breaks up with him, then proceeds to become a huge, slovenly caricature. A plot device instead of a real-seeming person—he mostly plants himself on Jamie's couch, at one point creepily caught pleasuring himself to a sex tape of his brother—Josh should have been entirely rewritten or edited out of the shooting script. Josh Gad (2008's "The Rocker") opts not to reel in his role's abrasiveness, becoming every bit as irritating as the character. Oliver Platt (2009's "2012") is a close second in terms of over-the-top buffoonery, playing Jamie's seasoned colleague Bruce Jackson without an ounce of subtlety. All the peripheral people on display are too colorful for their own good, square pegs trying without success to fit into the plot's more down-to-earth round holes.
"Love & Other Drugs" devolves into lots of tearful break-up/make-up sessions, including one of those cinematic contrivances where a character rushes to the airport to catch their lover (in this case, it's a bus that Jamie pulls over, but same difference). These sorts of moments can work if the film in question has done its job up to that point, but when Jamie and Maggie reunite there is a curious dramatic detachment to it. The viewer just doesn't feel anything. "Love & Other Drugs" has a pretty good soundtrack of recognizable '90s hits (with spare '80s songs like Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven Is a Place on Earth" thrown in for good measure) to go along with the setting, but this is just a superficial aside that fails to correct the film's major inherent problems. Did director Edward Zwick set out to make a romantic disease-of-the-week weepy? A sex romp? A historical drama (well, as historical as 1996 can be)? A slapstick? A corporate satire? By the evidence of the finished product, even he doesn't know. It's all those things, but does none of them particularly well. Anne Hathaway, though—she's so great you almost feel badly having to criticize what surrounds her.