The promotional materials for Love and Other Drugs make it look like a cookie-cutter romantic comedy, but that’s wrong. The movie is actually a cookie-cutter Disease of the Week movie, albeit a much funnier version than you usually see. These soap opera-like films like Terms of Endearment have fallen by the wayside recently, and I haven’t missed them much. Yet Love and Other Drugs finds a way to shake up the genre, mostly through its lead actors and some well-placed sex jokes.
The film’s based on Jamie Reidy’s memoir Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, though the only thing it has in common with its source is its storyline about a directionless young man who becomes a pharmaceutical sales representative in the 1990s and lands a job at Pfizer just in time to catch the Viagra boom. Jake Gyllenhaal portrays Jamie Randall, a medical school washout who figures that pharma sales are a natural fit for his incomplete education and his inborn schmoozing skills. While he’s trying to sell an influential general practitioner on the benefits of Zoloft, Jamie meets Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), a photographer suffering from Stage 1 of early-onset Parkinson’s disease. After a few weeks of ravenous, world-rocking sex, she pushes him away in the same manner that she pushes all other men away, because she doesn’t think anyone will want to stick around for the illness’ grim latter stages. Jamie, though, proves that he’s not so easily pushed.
You may remember that these two lead actors portrayed a toxic married couple in Brokeback Mountain. Here they prove that they have the good kind of chemistry too. The early scene in which Maggie calls out Jamie on his womanizing as a way of compensating for his low self-esteem is too pat as written, but the actors sail past it because they seem so at ease with each other in the scenes that follow. They’re also both incredibly beautiful to stare at. (And, yes, you’ve heard correctly. These actors both get large amounts of naked in this movie, which should please everyone.)
Hathaway has the flashier part, depicting the resting tremors that come with Stage 1 of Parkinson’s, along with the loss of motor control that makes Maggie’s bad days a chore to get through. She’s pretty good with that but, more importantly, she finds the deep unhappiness of someone who thinks herself fundamentally unlovable because of her condition. Late in the film, Maggie finds her way into a support group filled with other Parkinson’s patients who joke about their ailment and describe how they’ve gone on with their lives, and the relief that floods her face is something to see.
Best known for turning out prestigious period dramas such as Glory, Legends of the Fall, and The Last Samurai, longtime director Edward Zwick looks like an odd choice for a movie like this. Still, this isn’t completely foreign territory for him — his 1986 film About Last Night… was also a comedy about contemporary dating. Now, his touch with the material is so sure-footed that you’d think he’d spent the intervening 24 years making nothing but romantic comedies. Indeed, some of the humor feels straight out of a Judd Apatow film, especially regarding the masturbating habits of Jamie’s younger brother Josh (Josh Gad), a slobby dot-com billionaire who crashes in Jamie’s apartment after being tossed out by his wife. I wish the film hadn’t included a scene in which Jamie has an adverse reaction to taking Viagra — it seems that every filmmaker finds nonstop erections funnier than I do. This is regrettable, but it’s also an exception. Perhaps because the movie is so committed to treating its central relationship seriously, the raunchy sexual humor comes off as honest and refreshing instead of pandering.
Unlike the book, the movie isn’t that enlightening on the frequently dirty business of drug sales. The supporting cast (which includes the late Jill Clayburgh as Jamie and Josh’s mother) is no more than decent. One can argue that this movie cops out by ending before the Parkinson’s gets really grim. Then again, it does enough other things right that you probably won’t have the energy to hold those flaws against it. Love and Other Drugs isn’t overwhelming in any way, but it’s both funnier than the average weeper and more layered than the average romantic comedy. Hmm, I think that adds up to an above-average movie. Let’s go with that.
Love and Other Drugs
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway. Directed by Edward Zwick. Written by Charles Randolph, Marshall Herskovitz, and Edward Zwick, based on Jamie Reidy’s memoir. Rated R.