Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Love, sex, drugs and too much else

It starts as if it's going to satirize the highly commercial world of Big Pharma. In the shift to romcom something is lost."
It's got drugs, love and sex, but these obviously volatile ingredients don't mesh especially well in Love & Other Drugs, a romantic comedy starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, both of whom sometimes bare as much body as they do soul. And, by the way, before you call the DEA, we're talking primarily about licit drugs of the prescription variety.

Love & Other Drugs starts out as if it's going to be a lively expose of the ways in which the pharmaceutical industry pressures and coaxes doctors into prescribing one drug over another.

But Big Pharma probably needn't fret. Love & Other Drugs proves too scatter shot to hit any target for long: In addition to romping through the highly commercialized fields of the drug industry, the movie also attempts to refresh a romcom formula, examine self-imposed emotional barriers and toss in a few crass jokes for good measure.

The surprising thing - at least to me - about Love & Other Drugs is that it was directed and co-written by Edward Zwick, who has made fine movies, but who also helped create the landmark TV show thirtysomething, which had plenty to say about relationships, work and young families. It's interesting that this time out, Zwick - whose best big-screen work includes movies such as Glory and Blood Diamond - can't quite find a pulse on which to put his finger.

For all its ambition, Love & Other Drugs may be remembered for a variety of nude scenes between Gyllenhaal and Hathaway, who now officially closes the cover on her Princess Diary days.

Gyllenhaal and Hathaway worked together in Brokeback Mountain, only in that movie his character was a married gay man. This time, Gyllenhaal goes hetero with a vengeance, playing Jamie Randall, a womanizing drug salesman who bribes receptionists and sometimes helps doctors with their ... ahem ... social lives.

The only physician given much attention in the film - an internist portrayed by Hank Azaria - seems a bit of a sleazebag himself. During one telling moment, Azaria's Dr. Knight laments the state of contemporary medicine. We might be have been more sympathetic had he not delivered his analysis at a pajama party that morphs into an upscale orgy.

By now, you're probably wondering what happened to the romantic comedy part of the movie. Let me get you up to speed on that.

During the course of his work, Gyllenhaal's Jamie meets Hathaway's Maggie Murdock, a young woman who has Parkinson's disease. She's interested in sex, not long-term relationships. She's also angry and emotionally defended, not a surprising combination for someone with an incurable disease.

The next two words tell you something very significant about the movie.... They're "of course."

Of course, Jamie and Maggie fall for each other, even though she's ill and he's a committed womanizer who heretofore has shown no interest in stable relationships. And, of course, they get close and then pull apart and then....

Well, you know the drill.

Gyllenhaal's running at high speed here, playing a whip-smart underachiever who dropped out of college. Hathaway's Maggie is an artist, who's brash in ways that emphasize her cleverness and her desire to hold the world at arm's length.

Zwick sets the movie in the 90s, a decade when the economy was on the rise and so were other things. The story takes place during the dawning of the age of Viagra, the drug that catapults Jamie into the financial stratosphere. Oliver Platt appears as Jamie's drug-company mentor.

The movie can be smart, but it's also marred by an unfortunate tendency to dip into Judd Apatow territory. Jamie's brother (Josh Gad), is a dweeby entrepreneur who adds unnecessary gross-out jokes to the proceedings. And there's joke about a drug-induced erection that won't subside; it sticks out like a .... Let's just say it's too cheap for a movie that seems intent on finding some real emotion.

Those emotions can seem genuine, although I sometimes found myself watching performances by Gyllenhaal and Hathaway rather than becoming involved with their characters, young people who were being forced -- albeit kicking and screaming -- into accepting love.

It would be remiss to conclude a review of Love & Other Drugs without mentioning that Jill Clayburgh, who died earlier this month after a prolonged battled with leukemia. She appears briefly as Jamie's mother. She's also slated to appear in a 2011 movie. RIP to a fine actress.

As a thirtysomething fan, I was eager to see Love & Other Drugs, hoping it would successfully take Zwick away from the historical and topical subjects that seem to have dominated his movie career. But Love & Other Drugs wanders all over the place, touching down at a variety of entertaining and successful points without delivering on the high hopes the assembled talent engenders.

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