If you like a slice of pastiche with your pumpkin pie, this might be the Thanksgiving film for you. Ostensibly (and for lack of a more coherent option), Love & Other Drugs is classed as a romantic comedy. In truth, it’s equal parts humor, sex, melodrama, and cliché, a half-baked film that aims to please without truly satisfying.
Loosely based on the memoir Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, the film charts the rise of Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal), a young gun sales rep for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in the 1990s. When we meet Jamie, he is selling stereos and electronics, and his tactic is pure charm offensive. Lucky, then, that most of his eager customers happen to be young, nubile women. A stockroom tryst with the boss’s girl gets Jamie fired, and he sulks home to the parental mansion. A family dinner sets up Jamie as an underachiever and disappointment to his father and introduces his loud-mouthed, enterprising brother Josh (Josh Gad). They look nothing like brothers, which is just another way to underscore that Jamie gets the girls, while Josh gets the money and the success. While the rest look on in pinched displeasure, Josh offers the connections that send Jamie off to Pfizer training, where he lands first in his supervisor’s bed and then more permanently in Ohio. Under the tutelage of his partner Bruce (Oliver Platt), Jamie begins learning the ropes, slowly replacing charm and sexuality with the competitive (and morally questionable) drive it takes to succeed in pharmaceutical sales.
One of his more devious ploys has Jamie doing the rounds with Dr. Knight (Hank Azaria), a doctor he hopes to switch to Pfizer products. He gawks along as Knight examines the lovely Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), a young woman suffering from early-onset Parkinson’s disease. Jamie is too distracted by her winning smile and unbuttoned blouse to pay attention to the long list of drug treatments she rattles off. When Maggie discovers the ruse, she clobbers him in the parking lot, but her resistance only turns him on. He finagles her number and pursues Maggie until he’s granted a first date. Unlike most of his targets, she has an agenda of her own, which amounts to tearing apart his character then tearing off his clothes. Both happen in quick succession. Here the film takes a change of course, as the plot veers away from Jamie’s career to a relationship between two reluctant lovers. Both Jamie and Maggie are fiercely guarded, but it is suggested that their animal magnetism gets the better of them both, drawing them together past the point of anonymous comfort and into treacherous emotional territory.
In the midst of all this, Josh unexpectedly leaves his wife and moves in with Jamie. There is no dramatic reason for this; his character has the purely ornamental function of delivering raunchy jokes and buddy moments. This is where the various character arcs and emotional tones begin to collide like cars in a highway pileup. The problem is one of mixed motives more than mixed genres. Is this a satirical comedy about being a pharmaceutical sales rep? Is this a sex comedy? Is this a drama about illness? At any given moment, this film is any or all of these. Better known for more epic fare, I recognized director Edward Zwick and his partner Marshall Herskovitz for My So-Called Life, their seminal 90s teen TV drama. Although whispers of that show’s clever dialogue and nuanced understanding of female desire carry over, this film lacks the subversive zing.
Sure, Love & Other Drugs’ first act has some funny moments — notably the montage of Jamie at Pfizer training camp and his early efforts to win new accounts — but just as we settle into that rhythm, Maggie comes along and we’re in a new movie. I have to give the film credit for the romantic scenes, which are quite sexy with more nudity than is common in a mainstream film. The sex-driven nature of their relationship, especially of Maggie’s lust, is a refreshingly modern twist. I could do without Josh and his Apatow interludes, but thankfully both Hathaway and Gyllenhaal throw themselves into their roles; the film depends on their embodied performances and believable chemistry. But not content to be a smart, sexy comedy, the film brings us back to Maggie’s illness in the final act. There’s an interesting scene with Maggie at a support group meeting (featuring actors and performers who actually suffer from Parkinson’s) featuring some tough and honest moments. But the finale resurrects all three genre conventions with a flourish, and by the climax, I had lost interest.