Yes, this is the one where they’re naked.
It’s rather sad that realistic depictions of adult sexuality have become so rare in mainstream movies that Edward Zwick’s Love and Other Drugs can surf a tsunami of breathless coverage from magazine covers to SNL jokes to notoriety just because stars Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal get it on in a realistic, bra-removing way. (Those with longer memories might recall that these two crazy kids already did the deed onscreen five years ago in Brokeback Mountain.) Although I guess that’s a better ticket-selling strategy than focusing on how it’s also about Parkinson’s Disease.
Actually, it’s about a lot of things. Love and Other Drugs is by turns a raunchy bedroom farce, a muckracking health-care-industry satire, a sappy chick flick and a ’90s-nostalgia piece wistful for those bygone days of economic prosperity. Sometimes watching it feels like channel surfing.
Demonstrating a keen ear for the decade’s most wretched music, the film kicks off in 1996, with the Spin Doctors’ “Two Princes” introducing Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jamie Randall, a callow young stud picking up babes left and right on the sales floor of an electronics store. Fired for banging the boss’ girlfriend in the supply closet, our swaggering lech soon stumbles into the pharmaceutical industry. Turns out that working as a drug rep for Pfizer is the perfect gig for someone with Randall’s supreme schmoozing skills and abject moral bankruptcy. Before long, he’s got access to every doctor’s office in town by keeping their secretaries on speed-dial.
But he meets his match in Hathaway’s Maggie Murdock, a brassy Bohemian artist who shares his hobby of casual fornication. They barely make it through the front door before they’re already going at it, and then once that’s done she’s already booted him out before he can even button his pants. Randall is so used to the clingy types, he’s smitten with Maggie’s no-strings-attached policy. But their businesslike arrangement is short-lived, as pesky conversations break out amid all the heavy breathing. Despite the best efforts of both, they soon find themselves in (gasp!) a relationship.
This gets tricky, as we’ve learned from her very first scene that Maggie suffers from early-onset Parkinson’s. Thanks to Hathaway’s marvelous, prickly performance, we can see a young woman always on her guard, determined to shield herself from any attachments, as they’ll inevitably end in heartbreak. Maggie’s resigned to the disease and living for the moment, only hooking up with Jamie in the first place because he seems like precisely the kind of lout that she won’t have to worry about falling for. It’s a gutsy turn with some surprisingly sharp edges.
But the sharper Hathaway gets, the gummier Love and Other Drugs becomes. Gyllenhaal winds up repping the company’s new wonder drug, something called Viagra, thus sending the film off into a very long detour full of broad caricatures, priapism gags and go-go money-making montages. There’s an obvious point to be made here about Big Pharma devoting more resources to sustaining erections than to curing diseases, but it’s expressed in the most ham-fisted way imaginable, with real-life Parkinson’s sufferers just coming out and saying as much directly into the lens.
But the buoyant, bawdy energy of the film’s first hour depletes in a hurry once Jamie is required to grow up and accept the fact that Maggie’s not going to get better, and there’s no miracle cure on the horizon.
Gyllenhaal is the luckiest actor in Hollywood, and not just because he got to go to work everyday and get naked with Anne Hathaway. Has such a modestly talented actor ever been so consistently outmatched onscreen? Whether with Heath Ledger in Brokeback or Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. in Zodiac, Gyllenhaal has made a career out of being adequate opposite greatness. He has some fun with Jamie’s carefree caddishness during the picture’s first half, though he’s so transparently mimicking Tom Cruise that at one point he even dons Risky Business Ray-Bans. But as the film grows more maudlin he can’t hold his own next to Hathaway.
Director Edward Zwick has devoted most of his big-screen career to stolid, oatmeal historical epics like The Last Samurai and Defiance. Love And Other Drugs is a throwback to his first feature, the 1986 Rob Lowe vehicle About Last Night…, a movie that mainly lives on in the form of Mr. Skin clips of a pre-plastic surgery Demi Moore getting it on.
Grateful as I am that Zwick is returning to his roots instead of burdening us with another three-hour Oscar wannabe, the mishmash of tones at play here is clearly beyond his control. There’s a lot of funny stuff in this film, but none of it involves Randall’s obese, perpetually masturbating brother (Josh Gad) who seems to have wandered in from some awful Judd Apatow knockoff.
Still, Hathaway is a marvel. She’s savvy enough an actress to understand that a character suffering from a terminal illness doesn’t need to go looking for our sympathy, something surprisingly few performers figure out. She creates a tough, angry, complicated woman who deserved better than her lot in life. For starters, she deserved a better movie.
Director: Edward Zwick
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Jake Gyllenhaal
Running time: 112 minutes