Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Love & Other Drugs Review (Review #161)


I might never believe trailers again. When I saw the trailer for Love & Other Drugs, I was lead to believe it was a romantic comedy about Viagra. I wasn't told there was an illness. I wasn't told there was a lot of nudity. Well, while trailers sometimes are accused of giving away the whole movie, Love & Other Drugs takes a slightly different route: it doesn't show the best parts.

Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a thorough player and I mean player with a capital P. He's a smooth-talking charmer who can get any woman to do anything for, or should I say to, him. A shameless slut, Jamie hasn't been able to live up to the expectations of his wealthy parents (George Segal and the late Jill Clayburgh), who would have liked Jamie to have a respectable job that pays well.

It is at the suggestion of his multimillionaire dot-com brother Josh (Josh Gad) that Jamie reluctantly goes into pharmaceutical sales. Joining Pfizer, he continues his Jack The Lad routine, schtupping every woman, right down to the Pfizer trainer who was at first hostile to him but who eventually succumbs to his charms (he's Jake Freaking Gyllenhaal, for goodness sake. Who wouldn't fall for his Dutch charms?). Under his mentor/trainer Bruce (Oliver Platt), Jamie has a bit of trouble translating his obvious charms to sell his main drug, Zoloft, to the doctors in his area. However, he soon sleeps his way into seeing Dr. Stan Knight (Hank Azaria).

Dr. Knight's newest patient is Maggie Murdoch (Anne Hathaway) who is in the first stages of early-onset Parkinson's Disease in spite of being only 26. As part of the examination, she bares her breast to both Knight and Jamie (masquerading as an intern). This is the first of Hathaway's 'Julie Andrews moments', and while she's at first furious that this salesman saw her topless, she soon realizes that he's a good opportunity for meaningless sex. They begin an affair, but against both their stated wishes and good sense, they actually start having feelings for each other.

It's at this point that Love & Other Drugs segways wildly into about three different directions. It goes from the story of how Jamie becomes the seller for Viagra, to the story of Jamie growing into a man, to a romance between a physically ill woman and an emotionally ill man. Somehow director Edward Zwick and scriptwriters Zwick, Charles Randolph, and Marshall Hershkovitz (adapting Jaime Reidy's book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman) decided that it was not good to focus on one story. Instead, they appeared to have adapted a 'let's throw a lot at the audience and see where it leads us'.

I feel compelled to state for the record that I do not know the difference between Zoloft and Prozac, therefore, in a way, I wasn't buying whatever Jamie was selling. What I also couldn't buy was the uneven tone in Love & Other Drugs. It could never decide what it wanted to be.

Was it a raunchy romantic comedy? Josh's appearance throughout indicated as such, as did the 'Pajama Party' scene where we're treated to one of Viagra's notorious side effects. Was it a romantic drama? Jamie waiting all night for Maggie's return from a "Caravan to Canada for Prescriptions" indicated as much, as did when he stopped the bus to tell her the equivalent of 'you complete me'. How about a character study? Well, Jamie having a virtual heart attack when he finally admits that he loves her would present us such a possibility. Love & Other Drugs was simply all over the place, trying to be so many films that it lost focus on whatever it could have been.

It could be that Jamie was presented as such an unrepentant catnip to every woman he meets that it soon started becoming a joke. It plays from the Rom-Com Playbook: an incredibly good-looking man gets any woman he wants because they become entranced by his physique, and then, he finds The One. The One plays hard to get (either physically or emotionally) but he soon realizes that life cannot be lived outside her presence, and eventually she realizes he is The One too.

Maybe Love & Other Drugs was borrowing from Made of Honor as well: Jamie was such a sleazy narcissist you almost want him to fail.

Gyllenhaal and Hathaway, to their credit, do have a strong rapport, making their teaming enjoyable as they play off each other. However, at the beginning of the film, Hathaway sounded forced and unnatural, delivering her dialogue as if it were dialogue. It was most often in the comic parts where she fell flat. When she is dealing with her Parkinson's, that's when Hathaway shows herself to be a strong dramatic actress. When she finds herself at a conference with fellow Parkinson's sufferers, her face says everything about the joy of not being alone as well as the fear that she will eventually be completely unable to control her body.

It's at those moments when she does her best work.

Gyllenhaal clearly enjoyed being the object of desire and is determined to show us, after Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, that he still has a 'body of work' that belies the fact he's about to turn 30. Be that as it may, he curiously was better in the comic scenes than in the dramatic ones. It was a yin and yang type deal between them: when one was good, the other wasn't.

The fact that both Segal and Clayburgh were only in one scene seems such a waste. They were there to basically establish that Jamie had a family and that it was a financially successful one, one he hadn't been able to match. It makes their cameos, which is what they basically turned out to be, even more of a waste when one considers how often his brother Josh was in the film.

As played by Josh Gad, he's one of these perpetually adolescent man-child characters that Zach Galifianakis has perfected. Fat, slovenly, socially inept, obsessed with sex, down to masturbating to Jamie and Maggie's sex tapes (did people make sex tapes in 1996, and does anyone else find that last bit downright creepy?) but insecure with women; not only did Josh as a character add nothing to the story, it looked as though he was a leftover from a previous draft when Love & Other Drugs was purely a sex comedy with Viagra (no pun intended).

Platt is also wasted in a role that has him disappear as soon as Jamie finds success, only to come back near the end just to make things more confusing.

One character plot point that was just left hanging there for no real reason involves the rivalry between Zoloft wunderkind Jamie and his Prozac rival, Trey Hannigan (Gabriel Macht). I haven't seen Macht since he starred as The Spirit, and while it makes me happy he managed to have a career after that debacle his character was underdeveloped, almost unnecessary, to the plot/s of the film. He starts as merely a rival to Jamie, but then we learn from Maggie that she once had been Trey's lover, and Trey to be married. Once Jamie and Trey confront each other with no real resolution, Trey disappears from Love & Other Drugs, never to be seen again. Whatever conflict we had between Jamie and Maggie about her past with his rival are hinted at in one point, but disappear as soon as Zwick feels there is no need for it.

It's at this point I should discuss the nudity. Hathaway and Gyllenhaal are very attractive people. I don't begrudge them that. However, it is typical in American films that it is the woman that has to bear more, and whether this has to do with sexism or with the dual standard of keeping the man under wraps so to speak I do not know. It wasn't off putting to see two lovers be nude with each other (lovers tend to be naked in each other's presence) but their nudity wasn't erotic or even romantic.

It may have to do with the fact that they were just sexually involved without any interest in a relationship, but curiously, once they do develop true romance between them, they tend to be dressed. I can guess that the nakedness of both Gyllenhaal and Hathaway was to bring in audiences titillated by the idea of seeing two stars in a full state of undress. Honestly, I think the film would have been fine if it had held off on being so up front about them being naked or nearly naked.

One thing that did begin to grind at me was the soundtrack. It's not that I disliked the songs selected (anyone who picks a Bob Dylan song can't be all bad): it's the fact that more often than not, the songs themselves were getting in the way.

Edward Zwick appeared as if he were trying to be a Cameron Crowe or Martin Scorsese, two directors who almost always manage to mix songs to the screen seamlessly. Zwick tried, but couldn't keep it up (no pun, I swear). It soon become a game to figure out what song they were playing; it was fun hearing Praise You by Fatboy Slim again, but while he made the effort to make them relate (having the Kinks Well-Respected Man play as Jamie begins his selling career or Belinda Carlisle's Heaven Is A Place on Earth when they begin to sell Viagra) by the time the film ended I think even he gave up trying to find just the right song for the moment.

I will quickly point out that some of Love & Other Drugs' dialogue was downright silly. At one point, Maggie decides to perform oral sex on Jamie. "You're my little blue pill", he tells her. Why does that sound a bit cheesy to my ears? Somehow, I don't think that line will rank up there with, "You had me at hello", or "We'll always have Paris", or even "Love means never having to say you're sorry".

Love & Other Drugs is an odd mix of The Social Network with Love Story, mixing the creation of a juggernaut like Viagra with a passionate romance where the female faces a debilitating illness. In fact, in the montage where Jamie starts trying to find treatments and cures for Maggie, the Theme to Love Story started floating to my mind. It was an unconscious reaction.

Love & Other Drugs could have been a good film, if it had only decided what kind of film it was.

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