Love and Other Drugs
Director : Edward Zwick
Screenplay : Charles Randolph and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz (based on the book Hard Sell The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman by Jamie Reidy)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2010
Stars : Jake Gyllenhaal (Jamie Randall), Anne Hathaway (Maggie Murdock), Oliver Platt (Bruce Winston), Hank Azaria (Dr. Stan Knight), Josh Gad (Josh Randall), Gabriel Macht (Trey Hannigan), Judy Greer (Cindy), George Segal (Dr. James Randall), Jill Clayburgh (Nancy Randall), Kate Jennings Grant (Gina), Katheryn Winnick (Lisa), Kimberly Scott (Gail), Peter Friedman (California Man), Nikki Deloach (Christy), Natalie Gold (Dr. Helen Randall), Megan Ferguson (Farrah), Michael Benjamin Washington (Richard)
Love and Other Drugs is set against the backdrop of pharmaceutical sales in the late 1990s, just before the release of Sildenafil citrate, an enzyme inhibitor known to the general public as Viagra. The film is based loosely on a book titled Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman by Jamie Reidy, who was a pharmaceutical sales rep for the massive drug corporation Pfizer from 1995 to 2000. The parts of the film that are taken from Reidy’s book--the behind-the-curtain insights into the free-for-all of pharmaculture, in which aggressive sales reps desperate to meet their quotas work the market by hard-selling drugs to doctors, sometimes by making a good argument, but more often by wining and dining them and inflating their egos--are its best assets, as it creates a heady, critical, often comically shocking portrait of what happens when medical care meets the free market head on.
Unfortunately, as the title suggests, that is only one part of Love and Other Drugs, which slowly but surely reduces the world of pharmaceutical sales to a backdrop for its growing romantic plot, which begins in the realm of cynical sex-for-sex’s-sake and somehow winds its way to a genuinely moving disease-of-the-month melodrama. But, that’s not all, as director Edward Zwick, who co-wrote the screenplay with his longtime partner Marshall Herskovitz and Charles Randolph (The Life of David Gale), wants the film to be all things to all people. So, in addition to its portrait of pharmaceutical sales and romantic pathos, it also has a few healthy doses of animal comedy, most of which are not particularly funny, and a raucous soundtrack of mid-’90s pop hits to paper over the narrative and tonal gaps. The result is a big, sloppy movie that seems to be going in ten different directions by the time it is over. If we don’t know how to respond, it is because the filmmakers never decided exactly what kind of film to make.
The protagonist is Jamie Randall, who would best be described as a lothario if you met him in real life, but because he is played with such boyish, carefree exuberance by Jake Gyllenhaal, he will most likely be described with nicer labels. In short, Jamie is a womanizer, a master of bedding the opposite sex, and his life is a series of one-night stands and short-term flings, always with beautiful women, many of whom are already attached (the film’s opening credits show him getting it on with the girlfriend of the manager of the stereo store where he works). Jamie is also a brilliant underachiever, a college dropout who has the brains to get into medical school, but not the attention or the drive. He eventually finds his way into pharmaceutical sales under the guidance of Bruce Winston (Oliver Platt), a long-time veteran who chews Tums like gum and wants desperately to escape the Ohio river valley where he and Jamie have been exiled and get back to his family (and the bigger market) in Chicago.
Jaime’s natural charms and slick self-confidence serve him well in his new profession, even on hard-sell doctors like Dr. Stan Knight (Hank Azaria), who is a kind of catch-all portrait of medicine gone wrong. With little care for his patients, he prescribes whatever drugs are being peddled by the best salesman, who in this case is Trey Hannigan (Gabriel Macht), a Porsche-driving former Marine who makes sure that Dr. Knight is in the constant company of good food, fine wine, and willing women. It is while Jaime is trying to sell Pfizer’s antidepressant Zoloft to Dr. Knight that he first meets Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), a young woman with early onset Parkinson’s disease. Jaime is immediately intrigued by and attracted to her, and he is surprised to find that Maggie is just as shallow and aggressive as he is when it comes to sex and relationships. She wants the physical dimension and nothing else, which at first suits Jaime just fine. But then he starts to really like her, and for the first time in his life, he wants more from the relationship than just convenient carnality. Maggie, however, is resistant to making it more than surface-level because she fears that any man with whom she gets close will eventually leave her when her disease develops into something more than hand tremors that can be controlled with drug intervention (for her, the “F-word” is fine, but not the “G-word”--“girlfriend”).
Zwick, who has spent the past decade and a half making large-scale spectacle films about history and war like Legends of the Fall (1994), The Last Samurai (2003), and Defiance (2008), is clearly trying return to the smaller scale artist he used to be when he directed About Last Night (1986) and created the much beloved TV series thirtysomething and My So-Called Life. Love and Other Drugs has flashes of meaningful emotion that recall his best work, particularly the intimate moments between Jaime and Maggie where they let their guards down and recognize in each other a mutual need for love and connection. The fact that Gyllenhaal and Hathaway are such good actors helps dramatically, although the initial response that most viewers will have is wide-eyed surprise (and perhaps delight) at how frequently they are naked and moaning on screen, especially early in the relationship when sex is all they have. They create a believable sense of growing affection that must weather various storms, including Jaime’s profession (which, once he starts selling the little blue pill, means that he must maintain his lothario exterior even as he has ceased to live the life) and Maggie’s barely repressed self-loathing due to her condition. There are some stabs at cold hard truth, particularly in a scene in which a man whose wife of 30 years has Parkinson’s disease tells Jaime to leave Maggie because all he has to look forward to is misery and heartache.
Unfortunately, whenever Love and Other Drugs starts really working, there is a tonal landmine ahead just waiting to detonate. In one of the most egregious examples, the filmmakers use a crucial part when Jaime and Maggie are temporarily separated as an excuse not only to give us one last sex scene (this one involving a ménage-a-trois with a co-worker and her bisexual Thai friend) but also a lousy farce involving Jaime having to go to the emergency room with a Viagra-induced erection that won’t quit. Maybe earlier in the film this would have worked, but placed in the midst of emotional turmoil following Jaime’s supposed interpersonal growth, it just feels cheap and opportunistic. Most of the film’s landmines, however, involve Josh (Josh Gad), Jamie’s younger brother who, despite having just made $35 million selling his first internet company, has decided to crash pathetically on Jaime’s couch after his wife throws him out. The situation makes no sense except to provide supposed comic relief to Jaime and Maggie’s romantic story and medical drama via Gad’s inappropriate comments and boorish behavior (his slovenly appearance also helps to make Gyllenhaal look that much more buff and well-groomed). Most of the time Josh is little more than annoying, but there are some scenes that are simply jaw-dropping in their inanity, specifically one in which Jaime comes home to find Josh masturbating to a video he made with Maggie. This painfully unfunny moment of skin-crawling, semi-incestuous weirdness provides ample suggestion that Zwick and company were just throwing everything they could think of into the blender, which is usually a recipe for disaster.
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
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