As “Love & Other Drugs” demonstrates, the trouble with movies that try to be all things to all people is that they end up being not altogether anything for anybody.
Set in 1996, it’s a lumpy grab bag of comedy and tragedy, of spirits high and low, with more than a modicum of sex. The almost retro photogenic allure of stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway is the real subject (and drawing power) of the movie.
On the plus side, both actors, particularly Gyllenhaal, are more unbound (no pun intended) than we’ve seen them before. He plays Jamie Randall, a hot-shot Pfizer pharmaceutical rep whose rampant womanizing comes to a screeching halt when he encounters Hathaway’s Maggie Murdock, an artist who has early onset Parkinson’s disease. (They meet when he sneaks a peek at her breast during a medical exam.)
Maggie turns out to be a female version of the presmitten Jamie – she wants sex with no attachments. Inevitably, she becomes attached. We’re supposed to think she’s been holding out because, given her prognosis, she doesn’t want to fall in love. But Maggie, to Hathaway’s credit, looks like she was born nobody’s fool.
The early scenes between Jamie and Maggie are the film’s best. Freed up from gallivanting with CGI effects à la “Prince of Persia,” Gyllenhaal is refreshingly, disarmingly boyish. Jamie makes his living hustling Zoloft, and, triumphantly, Viagra, to mercenary physicians like Hank Azaria’s Dr. Knight, but he’s essentially an innocent. That’s why Maggie, wised-up and afflicted, gets to him, and it’s also why, once they are a couple, he goes a little crazy trying to track down a cure for Parkinson’s.
If director Edward Zwick and his coscreenwriters Marshall Herskovitz and Charles Randolph, had focused on Jamie’s transformation from gadabout to crusader and jettisoned all the glib, not-so-crowd-pleasing shenanigans along the way, they might have come up with something more lasting than a glorified sitcom misted over with tears. (The source material is Jamie Reidy’s nonfiction memoir “Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman.”) But too often the big emotional trajectories, such as Jamie’s feverish medical skullduggery, are presented as high-speed montages – as if the audience would be bored otherwise.
And do we really need Jamie’s slobbo brother (Josh Gad) as a running gag? He’s a sop to the goony, sub-Apatow crowd. We also don’t need quite so many shots of googly-eyed females (such as the medical receptionist played by Judy Greer) eyeing Jamie as if he was fresh meat. This sort of thing went out with Dean Martin and 007.
What we could do with more of is the film’s attack, albeit with kid gloves, on the collusion between doctors and Big Pharma. Zwick is known for socially conscious political epics like “Blood Diamond” and “Defiance,” so his alternately goofy and somber, once-over-lightly approach to medical malfeasance seems like a wasted opportunity – especially since the film’s forced levity and echoes from “Love Story” aren’t exactly an adequate trade off.
The filmmakers were clearly hellbent on not making a movie-of-the-week weepie. But at least those weepies carry the conviction of their own mass-appeal sentimentality. They may be egregious but they don’t try to be anything more than they are. “Love & Other Drugs” is a slick weepie made by smart guys who want you to know they’re better than the schlockmeisters. They’ve outsmarted themselves. Grade: B- (Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, pervasive language, and some drug material.)
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