Friday, April 22, 2011

Love and Other Drugs

Director: Edward Zwick
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathway, Josh Gad, Judy Greer, Gabriel Macht, Oliver Platt, Hank Azaria, George Segal, Jill Clayburgh
Running Time: 112 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

An ambitiously entertaining mess, Love and Other Drugs deserves credit for being an unconventional romance that attempts to give us something we haven't seen before. It isn't often a raunchy sex comedy doubles as an emotional medical drama set in the world of pharmaceutical sales. Besides breaking a cinematic record for onscreen nudity and featuring an unintentionally hilarious depiction of the mid to late 90's, it's also noteworthy for stretching a couples' third act break-up crisis over an hour. All over the map in terms of tone, I found myself liking it anyway, with its flaws making it more fun than it otherwise would have been if everything flowed perfectly. It's also one of the few recent rom-coms that might actually have some re-watch value, if only because it's so wacky. But if you replaced Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal it wouldn't have worked. They bring needed dimension to questionably written, sometimes unlikable and self-pitying characters who aren't the easiest to root for. It's one of those rare star pairings that not only looked good on paper, but exceeds expectations on screen.

It's 1996 when charismatic electronics salesmen and med-school dropout Jamie Randall (Gylenhaal) is fired for sleeping with the store manager's wife and his millionaire brother Josh (Josh Gad) lands him a a medical sales rep job for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. Working alongside his more experienced partner Bruce (Oliver Platt) Jamie initially struggles in the field, pedaling Zithromax and Zoloft to Dr. Stan Knight (Hank Azaria), posing as his intern and bribing and seducing his receptionists. It's during an impromptu breast exam he falls for one of Knight's patients, the feisty, sarcastic Maggie Murdock (Hathaway), a 26 year-old with early onset Parkinson's Disease who has as little interest in a serious relationship as he does, making them the perfect match. But when Jamie unexpectedly wants something more, he finds the one woman he may be incapable of winning over, so angry and closed-off because of her condition she's unwilling to let anyone in. This is all happens just as the new drug Viagra, hits the market for Pfizer, changing Jamie's prospects considerably and putting him at the forefront of a major drug boom.

The first hour of this film is fantastic, working really well as a screwball romantic comedy, while cleverly sending up the drug industry. It isn't exactly a scathing social commentary but the life of a medical sales rep is something we've haven't seen on screen before so there's a freshness in watching how they push doctors to prescribe medications by promising perks and bribing them. For a while at least the screenplay flawlessly juggles this topic with the entirely physical relationship between Maggie and Jamie. Just in case you didn't get the memo, Anne Hathaway likes to do nudity. Or if she doesn't, she's a much better actress than we thought since there's a hardly scene in the first 60 minutes where she isn't topless. Given the total amount of graphic sex scenes it's kind of shocking director Edward Zwick wasn't slapped with an NC-17, especially considering the MPAA's notoriously prudent stance on sex and nudity. After a while there's so much of it you almost lose track of whether it's gratuitous or not. If the purpose is to convey Maggie and Jamie's relationship is purely physical that point gets across loud and clear, and in a strange way, it's kind of a relief to see a film so unafraid of going all the way with this. Either way, the first half is a blast before turning deadly serious. The Parkinson's becomes a factor, but not in the way you'd expect, which is mostly due to the fact that the disease is progressive so the clock on her life isn't rapidly ticking like it would for a "disease of the week" melodrama like Love Story or Autumn in New York. It becomes more about whether Jamie can break down the wall she's put up and stick around despite the certainty her condition will worsen (he even gets to hear exactly how it in the film's most brutally honest scene). And if he does stick around, the question becomes whether he'll be able to do it for her rather than out of self-guilt.

There's definitely some clumsy writing and the tone's all over the place in the third act but Hathaway and Gyllenhaal possess such an understanding of their characters that they're able to make the necessary adjustments to sell it. I can't say I was thrilled with the arc Maggie took, being this strong, free spirit who deteriorates into an emotional mess, but it's fairly realistic given the context of the story. It's also a tough role for Hathaway since she has to not only convey the physical characteristics of the condition but all the baggage that comes along with it. Gyllenhaal's character also has take a more serious turn and while I prefer the how both started much more than how they ended up, both actors don't miss a beat in having to perform in what seems like two wildly different films. Jonah Hill clone Josh Gad as Jamie's overweight, annoying brother Josh brings what's expected to the sloppy sidekick role while Hank Azaria is so believable as a doctor you'd think they accidentally cast a real one. Once again, the awesome, should-be-famous Judy Greer is delightful in another one of her "crazy chick" supporting roles, and it does soften the blow a little this time that she's playing second fiddle to a genuine talent like Hathaway instead of Heigl, Aniston or Hudson.

Why this is set in a late 90's time period aside from the fact it's based on the non-fiction book, Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman by Pfizer's Jaime Reidy, isn't exactly clear, but that small detail sure makes the film funnier. Did they really still sell boom boxes at electronic stores in '96? Was anyone still listening to the Spin Doctors in '97? What were we thinking with the Macarena? Was the internet really so popular then that doctors worried about patients diagnosing themselves? But being a big fan of everything mid to late 90's I was just happy to see that time period depicted in a film at all, no matter how ridiculous. Any points lost for historical accuracy is made up for with originality. Playing by slightly different rules and crossing conventional genre boundaries, Love and Other Drugs is a risky alternative, proving it's sometimes better for a film to suffer an identity crisis than have no identity at all.

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