Jake Gyllenhaal as Jamie Randall
Anne Hathaway as Maggie Murdock
Oliver Platt as Bruce Winston
Hank Azaria as Dr. Stan Knight
Josh Gad as Josh Randall
Gabriel Macht as Trey Hannigan
Judy Greer as Cindy
George Segal as Dr. James Randall
Jill Clayburgh as Nancy Randall
Katheryn Winnick as ‘Lisa’
Kimberly Scott as Gail
Natalie Gold as Dr. Helen Randall
Kate Jennings Grant as Gina
Directed by Ed Zwick
No one much likes the modern medical industry–it probably has something to do with turning human beings health into an actual industry–from the insurers to the doctors to the pill-pushing salesmen who care more for their quotas than whether their drugs are particularly needed. (If there’s no market, a smart person can always create one.) It’s an area of modern life ripe for artistic investigation of how did we get here and how do we feel about it? So naturally Hollywood turned it into a romantic dramedy.
Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a bright boy from a family of bright boys. His father and sister are both doctors and his brother is a medical software multi-millionaire. He literally grew up in a doctor’s office and has more than a layman’s knowledge in how the hip bone is connected to the thigh bone. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much interest, in the medical side anyway. The only thing he’s ever been good at is sales and sealing the deal, so it’s something of the best of both worlds for him when he gets a job as a pharmaceutical salesman for Pfizer.
Trust me, though; there is a robust romantic plot in there although it may not sound like it at first. Part of that is because “Love and Other Drugs” can’t seem to make up its mind about what it is. Based on Jamie Reidy’s autobiographical account of his time as a Viagra salesman in the late ’90s, “Drugs” has an instinctually ironic outlook on the industry and industrialized health care in general that it is more than happy to share with us and which is often both enlightening and horrifying.
Realizing what a tough sell an ironic satire about the pharmaceutical industry would be as a feature film, co-writer/director Ed Zwick (“Glory,” “Blood Diamond”) has made the move to pare it with a bog standard dramatic romance plot which quickly pushes everything else out of the way to take over the film.
After a few weeks of learning the ropes as a Pfizer rep covering the Ohio valley, Jake bumps into Maggie (Anne Hathaway), an eccentric artist-waitress (as if there were any other kind) who has the bad luck to be afflicted with Parkinson’s disease very young. This has left her with a cynical attachments-are-useless point of view and what relationships she has are merely empty physical experiences designed to momentarily let her forget her misery. Being a connoisseur of empty physical experiences, Jamie jumps at the opportunity and it seems like a match made in heaven. Then emotions crop up.
As romance plots go, Hollywood has repeated this one many, many, many, many times with only a few details altered here and there. (In fact, there’s another film opening soon with almost the exact same story.) This time around, Zwick has ducktaped a degenerative neurological disease to it, partially for the easy tragedy and partially to suggest a middle ground between the healthcare satire and the romantic bubblegum through the catalyst of Maggie’s disease and how it affects her and Jamie’s relationship.
Hathaway is actually very effecting as Maggie, in a role that could easily have morphed into the ridiculous, and the few unguarded moments about dealing with the disease are among the few moments of real feeling in the film. Unfortunately, she also highlights just how schizophrenic “Love and Other Drugs” is, because ultimately, it’s not about peddling Zoloft or Viagra or living life with a debilitating illness or even whether empty sex is a good thing or not. It is, in that age old Hollywood way, about how much chemistry its actors have as romantic co-stars and how entertaining that romance is.
The good news is that they have a lot of chemistry and are given a lot of good scenes, in and of themselves, to show it off. Zwick and longtime co-writer Marshall Herskovitz have produced a plot with humor and humanity and Gyllenhaal and Hathaway play it up to absurd but entertaining effect. Gyllenhaal, introduced early as a skirt-chasing man’s man, gets pulled into some hilarious gender role-reversal as the film goes on something that sounds silly but works perfectly, especially the first time he tells Maggie he loves her.
In fact, it’s only when “Love and Other Drugs” throws of the bonds of seriousness and devolves into just light sex romp that it becomes truly entertaining. Part of that is because, despite its pretensions, it doesn’t bother much to develop anything outside of the relationship, leaving most of the actors stuck in archetypes. Josh Gad is left for the entire film playing the fat computer nerd roll obsessed with but incapable around women from any given high school or college film. Despite the fact that he’s an incredibly successful multimillionaire, he spends most of the film in his pajamas living in his brother’s apartment and unable to function. Granted he’s going through a separation, but it’s still ridiculously flat and stereotypical and Zwick makes little effort to do anything with it but make easy jokes. Which is fine when the film is being a farce, but an obvious detraction when it tries get serious. And Gad probably gets the best treatment of any of the supporting characters.
To be fair, “Love and Other Drugs” isn’t as bad as it sounds. Many of the individual scenes are fine in and of themselves but the gear shifts from satire to farce to drama are so obvious they’re distracting. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to add depth to a light-hearted comedy (or the other way around) but if you’re going to do that you’ve actually got to follow through. “Love and Other Drugs” can’t manage it and in the end, no matter how funny the dialogue or attractive the stars, its flaws are extremely hard to ignore.