Phil on Film Index

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Review - Love and Other Drugs

Now that his name has become synonymous with explosive, message-driven action movies like Blood Diamond and Defiance, perhaps we can understand Edward Zwick's desire to try his hand at a few new genres, but did he really need to try them all in one movie? Love and Other Drugs never decides what kind of film it wants to be, and its indecision is crippling. The film wants to be a romantic comedy, as it charts the romance between arrogant Pfizer salesman Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) and free-spirited artist Maggie (Anne Hathaway), but it also wants to be a raunchy farce in which Jamie's obnoxious brother (Josh Gad, an insufferable vortex of anti-comedy) is caught masturbating to his sibling's sex tape. There's no reason why such disparate elements shouldn't mesh, of course, but here they blend like oil and water, and matters are further complicated by the film's attempt to capture the essence of America's mid-90's economic boom, or the dark cloud of Maggie's worsening Parkinson's disease. Love and Other Drugs will do anything to get a laugh or jerk a tear, and its desperation is embarrassing.

The strain also shows in Gyllenhaal's performance, as he attempts to bring a laid-back charm and charisma to his cocksure character that seems to be beyond his abilities. Jamie is going nowhere until he finds his calling as a pharmaceutical salesman working for Pfizer, with his smooth talk allowing him to seduce his way past receptionists and into doctor's surgeries, where he sneakily deposits his own drug while swiping the opposition's. Such unscrupulous behaviour makes Jamie a perfect match for Dr. Stan Knight (Hank Azaria), who even allows him to be in the room while he examines Maggie's breast. Maggie, instead of complaining to the authorities and getting the doctor struck off for his behaviour, also eventually proves immune to Jamie's charms, and the pair are quickly enjoying a no-strings-attached relationship.

Inevitably, that 'just sex' affair starts to develop into something more, even as Maggie attempts to resist any deeper connection. She knows her condition is only going to worsen over time, and this knowledge has led to her cutting emotional ties, fearing a future in which she will be a liability for her partner or will inspire only his sympathy ("You are not a good person because you pity-fuck the sick girl" she shouts in one of the film's few effectively acerbic moments). This is interesting territory for a mainstream Hollywood romance to explore – how do you overcome such obstacles to forge a successful relationship? – and Hathaway strikes the right note in her portrayal of Maggie, refusing to overdo the tics associated with her illness or play the victim. Love and Other Drugs only explores these issues in the most superficial way, though, and while we might applaud the film for giving screen time to real Parkinson's sufferers and allowing them to tell their story, the effect of such moments is undermined by the countless misjudged sequences, some of which seem to exist in a different film altogether. In one such scene, Viagra salesman Jamie is forced to run from a party holding a pillow over his uncontrollable erection. It's an utterly juvenile sequence in a film that seems desperate to be viewed as adult and sophisticated, and indicative of the picture's identity crisis.

Perhaps we should end with a word on the nudity in Love and Other Drugs. Yes, Gyllenhaal and Hathaway are naked for many of their scenes together, and Zwick clearly wants to present this as a casual, relaxed approach to nudity and sexuality, but it doesn't seem so casual when the film's stars are drawing attention to it by appearing nude on magazine covers, or discussing it at length in the press. Once again, we sense a tension between the film Love and Other Drugs wants to be – daring, ribald and sexy – and the immature, timid attitude that sees it failing to loosen up, failing to commit to a particular style and tone, and furiously hedging its bets. There's probably material for three or four decent movies in here, each of which would appeal to a very different audience, but the one we've got is a sorry old mess.