WFTB Score: 6/20
The plot: Ace salesman Jamie Randall allows his comfy world to be turned upside-down by Parkinson’s sufferer Maggie Murdock; for whereas they’re initially content to have a relationship based on sex, they soon realise they have genuine feelings for each other. As Jamie finds out more about Maggie’s condition and comes to realise there is no cure, he has to ask difficult questions about who he is.
Cocksure Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal) is irresistibly good at selling, not least himself to any woman he meets; so it’s little surprise that he’s fired from his retail job for a bit of back-room hanky-panky. Taking advice from his doctor sister, he embarks on a career with massive drugs firm Pfizer, a move which brings him into contact with some larger-than-life characters: sleazy fellow rep Bruce (Oliver Platt), who shows him the ropes; ex-marine Trey (Gabriel Macht), rep for rival firm Lily (makers of the all-conquering Prozac); influential doctor Stan Knight (Hank Azaria) and, after bribing Stan to let him meet a few patients, Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), an artist and sufferer from early-onset Parkinson’s.
Initially, Jamie just sees a pair of beautiful brown eyes and a shapely left breast, earning him a severe handbagging; but over coffee, the pair learn that they are equally up for meaningless sex. The arrangement seems ideal, especially since the arrival of Jamie’s hopeless, slobbish brother Josh (Josh Gad) seems destined to prevent the relationship becoming more serious; but Jamie can’t help himself and they fall in love, notwithstanding Maggie’s admission that she was previously with Trey.
As Jamie’s career goes into overdrive marketing a new drug called Viagra, he also tries to help Maggie find a cure. Maggie, however, knows that there is no cure and she pushes him away. Jamie’s temporarily released back into his old sex-and-drugs lifestyle, which only awakens him to what’s truly important and meaningful to him. But will Maggie have him back?
What attention has been given to Love and Other Drugs (which isn’t much) has focused on the amount of nudity in the film; and depending on your tastes there’s an entirely acceptable amount of unclothed Hathaway and/or Gyllenhaal on screen. The question that needs asking is why is the nudity there, and I’m sure Zwick’s answer would be to show that people with serious conditions are more than capable of enjoying sex, whether it’s a quickie or as part of a deeply intimate relationship.
Unfortunately, it’s pretty irrelevant whether or not Zwick’s intentions were honourable, since the bare flesh feels like nothing more than compensation for watching an otherwise drearily predictable film. It’s not just that Gyllenhaal’s Jamie is an over-familiar caricature, the career- and money-motivated ‘swinging dick’ (it’s a quote!) who gradually comes to realise what’s really important (see Schindler’s List, various incarnations of A Christmas Carol, Hathaway’s own The Devil Wears Prada and a thousand other films beside); and it’s not just that Hathaway’s Maggie is a self-obsessed artist with a nice flat and plenty of money, the sort who only exists in Hollywood films. No, the problem is that neither character is remotely likeable. As a cynical salesman in a profoundly cynical industry, Randall is pretty despicable, and Gyllenhaal fails to warm him up much once he realises how much he needs Maggie (which happens in awkward stages). ‘Tell me four good things about yourself,’ Maggie challenges – and Jamie fails to think of a single one. Yet we’re supposed to empathise with him?
As for Maggie, having a disease doesn’t automatically earn you sympathy (unless you’re under ten) and Hathaway unusually does her best to make her character unlikeable, even allowing for the fact that Maggie’s abrasiveness is obviously her defence mechanism. This would not be such an issue were Maggie’s story more affecting, but her illness doesn’t progress at all throughout the film – not to give everything away, but this ain’t no Terms of Endearment – so all we have is hints of the future: a spilt drink, the testimony of other Parkinson’s sufferers, an exhausted husband warning Randall of what may come.
Well, not quite all, and here’s where Love and Other Drugs really falls down. When it’s not being a romantic drama, it spends much of its time trying to be a satire on the pharmaceutical industry (Maggie accompanies busloads of pensioners to Canada to get affordable prescriptions), and the rest a bawdy, Viagra-powered sex comedy along the lines of Superbad or Get Him To The Greek. Chief offender in this regard is Josh, an unedifying cross between Jack Black and Jonah Hill who embarrasses himself and Jamie in all sorts of situations, including masturbating to Jamie and Maggie’s home video and scoring with an unfussy hanger-on at a hedonistic pyjama party. Quite why the writers thought this would dovetail with Maggie’s on-off acceptance of Jake’s love and assistance is anyone’s guess, but the wild humour may also be a feature of the book on which the film is based.
Love and Other Drugs was never going to be particularly original, but with the involvement of two bright young leads and a respected director, you could reasonably have hoped for a visually and emotionally intelligent film. Sadly, not only is it a movie that fails to invoke any sense of time or place (flat screen TVs in 1996?), it’s a confused and disappointing effort which, despite the shallowness of the tale, leaves two good-looking actors out of their depth and uncomfortably exposed.