By Bill Wine
Love & Other Drugs is a fictional pharma flick based on a nonfiction book, a rom-com with a prescription to fill.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Jamie Randall, an aggressive and ingratiating pharmaceutical salesman for Pfizer, pushing Zoloft while Prozac predominates, who finds himself selling Viagra to the medical establishment in the 1990s, when the Little Blue Pill takes off in the midst of the Big Pharma boom and a new phase of the sexual revolution begins.
Anne Hathaway stars opposite him as Maggie Murdock, a guarded but outspoken artist who is afflicted with early-onset Parkinson’s disease, which means that love is nowhere near the only drug in her life.
Among the things these two have in common, in addition to their immediate attraction to one another, is their mutual interest in non-involvement, which seems a workable formula for this commitment-phobic pair, at least until lust eventuates into love.
Her hesitation stems from her fear of needing to rely on somebody too much because of the demands of her ever-worsening health, his because he has not really discovered who he is or what he wants yet and doesn’t want to be distracted from that quest.
Solid leads Gyllenhaal and Hathaway, who played spouses in Brokeback Mountain in 2005, have an unforced chemistry and their intimate scenes have the necessary oomph. Would that the calibration of their gradual and growing emotional interdependence and commitment were as convincingly delineated.
Director Edward Zwick (Defiance, Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai, Glory, Courage Under Fire) — working from a screenplay (originally titled Pharma) by Charles Randolph, Marshall Herskovitz, and Zwick that’s loosely based on the 2005 memoir, Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, by Jamie Reidy, that did not include the character of Maggie — keeps the energy level high and finesses the several switches in tone and genre without doing much damage.
But despite Zwick’s impressive string of directorial credits, comedy is not exactly his strength.
He does give us an illuminating and incriminating peek into not only our societal dependence on prescription medication but also the cutthroat world beyond the waiting room of physicians as they deal in an ethically shaky way with the manipulative sales force, the ubiquitous pharmaceutical reps dealing them drugs for their patients.
While we watch scenes devoted to the moral murkiness of the milieu and wait for the male protagonist to come around, we find ourselves recalling two recent, superior comedies that juggled the same balls, Thank You For Smoking and Up in the Air. This does Love & Other Drugs no favors, but doesn’t bury it either.
Zwick does work in the contributions of several colorful supporting players, including Oliver Platt as Jamie’s mentor, Hank Azaria as his primary customer, and Gabriel Macht as his chief competitor. But this is the Hathaway and Gyllenhaal Show, and they show plenty, as the ads and trailers are ever so happy to demonstrate.
Like both of its central characters, the film comes on a bit too strong, even though it’s undeniably arresting and charming. The biting aggressiveness of Maggie, for instance, despite Ms. Hathaway’s best efforts, sometimes makes her seem the synthetic construct that she actually is in the adaptation of the source material.
The romance, then, that now clings to the spine of the screenplay was not even in the book that inspired it, and the three screenwriters have not quite smoothed out the wrinkles of that added-on conceit.
So we’ll peddle 2½ stars out of 4 for Love & Other Drugs, an entertaining comedy-drama that doesn’t dish out all the right meds but enough of them to make us feel better as a helpful dose of one of those other drugs — the one called “movies.”