There’s one single moment during “Love and Other Drugs” that ushers in some much needed reality to the proceedings. It comes off as alien because it contains a genuine feeling of vulnerability, prominently sticking out in a film that drips with drab romantic comedy clichés and Penthouse Letter-style sexuality. If director Edward Zwick could’ve nurtured that moment for longer than a few measly minutes, this picture might’ve found a meaningful core. Instead, the filmmaker speeds on by, itching to return to the unpleasant, trivial business that forms the rest of this disappointing movie.
A slick-talking home electronics salesman fresh out of a job, Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes a position as a pharmaceutical rep with Pfizer, pushing the company’s drugs on local doctors, using his natural seductive way with women to make an impression. During one of his visits, Jamie meets patient Maggie (Anne Hathaway), a standoffish young woman struggling with the early effects of Parkinson’s Disease (P.D.). Attracted to her resistance, Jamie makes a play for Maggie, finding a challenging mate only interested in carnal delights. As their relationship deepens, Maggie freaks out, pushing Jamie away, who’s soon caught up in the rise of Viagra, the new wonder drug taking the nation by storm, offering him a golden chance to leave town and make a name for himself.
While the feature certainly means well, I couldn’t shake a case of the icks while watching “Love and Other Drugs.” It’s an unusually blunt pass at typical rom-com monkey business, leading with rather graphic displays of sex to communicate the primal hunger shared between the shallow lothario and his art-inclined deteriorating lover. Peeling off their clothes with regularity, Jamie and Maggie embark on a seriously soft-core adventure that deeply undermines the romantic vibe developing on the borders of the film. The movie hopes to be sweet and gentle, but it also wants to stick fingers into body cavities and go all Zalman King on the audience, confusing the benevolence of the love story. I’m all for naked people dancing in the sheets, but “Love and Other Drugs” is aggressively erotic, striking a harsh tone of free love that unnerves from the start.
Set in the mid-1990s, “Love and Other Drugs” also looks to tell the extraordinary story of Viagra, using Jamie Reidy’s book, “The Hard Sell,” as creative inspiration. The pharmaceutical industry gets off pretty light in the picture, with Pfizer receiving the star treatment in terms of logo placement and product endorsement. Nothing in the script challenges Jamie’s iffy sense of work ethic, preferring to turn these suited hucksters into stars, with Gyllenhaal doing his best Tom Cruise impression as Viagra takes center stage. Zwick established himself long ago as a probing director, and I was stunned to find the film doesn’t challenge the unscrupulous selling tactics used by the reps, who sleep, lie, and bribe their way to success. But drugs aren’t really the focus here. Sadly, neither is the P.D.
Hathaway does what she can with an obvious role of illness, doing her best to represent the bold feminine light of the movie, while tastefully depicting the erosion of P.D. Again, the script doesn’t dig too deeply, only calling up her infirmity when the narrative needs a sobering punch. The finest scene of the movie is Maggie amongst fellow P.D patients at a medical conference, finding hope in solidarity, while Jamie gets the education of a lifetime from a particularly honest caregiver. It’s a bracing bit of shock the dingbat script needed 100% more of, slapping away the graceless sexuality to take on the matter at hand with an essential gravity.
Instead, “Love and Other Drugs” either wants to be funny (co-star Josh Gad is agonizing as Jamie’s slob brother) or sensitive, chasing rom-com clichés that play like a blurry photocopy of “Jerry Maguire,” down to the final scene of teary soulful confession. The sentiment is unearned, registering as cold calculation in a picture that expels so much energy on uncomfortable details. The film isn’t sensual, it’s creepily blunt. And blunt always kills the miracle of silver screen love.