Love And Other Drugs

February 10, 2011

jake gyllenhaal and anne hathaway are in bed togetherAt first glance, the recent romantic comedy/drama Love and Other Drugs would seem to be a radical departure for director Edward Zwick, best known for weighty, melodramatic historical epics like Glory (1989), Legends of the Fall (1996), and The Last Samurai (2003). My first thought upon hearing his name attached to the project was that he must be trying to reinvent himself after the fairly ambivalent response to his last film, the more characteristic World War II drama Defiance (2008). Maybe he is, but it turns out he has been doing these types of films (I refuse to call them “rom-coms,” though I guess I just did) from the start. His first feature was the 1986 comedy About Last Night, and even after the prestige of Glory, he returned to comedy in 1992 with the mostly forgotten female buddy picture Leaving Normal, which flopped in the wake of a more serious female buddy picture we might remember as Thelma and Louise.

Now Zwick has returned to the comedy genre with an entertaining and generally likable flick buoyed by his direction and strong lead performances, but somewhat stymied by an almost schizophrenic lack of identity as either a comedy or a drama, as well as some very played out genre cliches. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Jamie Randall, a slick, promiscuous salesman working for the Pfizer company in the mid-1990s (so maybe this is a historical epic after all). Gyllenhaal’s performance is solid, but Anne Hathaway nearly blows him off the screen as Maggie Murdock, a strong woman fighting a losing battle against early onset Parkinson’s Disease. Are we laughing yet?

This is what I mean about the film’s schizophrenic tendencies: it flip-flops between the more lighthearted aspects, such as comedic dialogue and refreshingly frank sex scenes, and surprisingly poignant drama as Maggie and Jamie struggle to make their relationship work while her health deteriorates. The dramatic scenes are ultimately more effective, particularly one in which Maggie hears testimonials from real life Parkinson’s patients and another in which Jamie talks to the husband of a woman who has suffered from the disease for decades. The comedy is decent, especially in the supporting work of Oliver Platt as Jamie’s fellow salesman and Josh Gad as his overnight millionaire brother (Gad does his best in a role clearly tailor-made for Jack Black before Black became the star he is today), but it falls flat next to the emotional power of Hathaway’s performance.

This film is by no means a downer though, so it is ultimately the romance and comedy elements that carry it to its conclusion. Nothing about the movie really feels authentically ’90s, so I guess the hook of the film (Jamie’s wildly successful promotion of the new wonder drug Viagra) is just there to carry on the central theme of medicine as an aid for love; impotence and Parkinson’s are wisely not treated as if they are equal, but Jamie is understandably looking for the wonder drug that will cure his lover. It is once again mostly Hathaway who makes us care enough to follow these characters to the end of the movie, which is basically a series of romantic cliches.

A friend of mine once pointed out that it is the rare romantic comedy that doesn’t feature the protagonist running (often in the rain) or driving at reckless speeds to chase down the woman he loves, and has ostensibly lost, in order to deliver the heartfelt speech that brings her back to him. This is not that rare romantic comedy, but it is a pretty good date movie – not too challenging, but at least not insulting to the intelligence of the average audience.

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