Film Review: Love & Other Drugs

Edward Zwick successfully cloaks his critique of Big Pharma in the guise of a funny, sexy romantic comedy...until the third-act doldrums set in, that is.
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Writer/director/producer Edward Zwick has never been one to shy away from weighty subjects. During the course of his three-decade career on the big and small screen, he’s tackled racism (Glory), infidelity (“thirtysomething”), homosexuality (“My So-Called Life”), terrorism (The Siege) and Tom Cruise’s savior complex…uh, make that colonialism (The Last Samurai). But after his last two serious-minded message movies, 2006’s Blood Diamond and 2008’s Defiance, tanked at the box-office, Zwick apparently felt that his next film needed to prioritize entertainment value over educational value. That explains why Love & Other Drugs, which he directed and co-wrote with Charles Randolph and his longtime collaborator Marshall Herskovitz, hides its social commentary behind the sheen of a star-powered romantic comedy.

The Big Idea on Zwick’s mind this time around is the growth of the pharmaceutical industry into a major social and economic force. Set in 1996, the film presents Big Pharma’s rise through the eyes of one of its foot soldiers, Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal), a good-looking, smooth-talking salesman whose silver tongue can move any product or tempt any woman into his bed. Enlisting in the Pfizer division of the pharmaceutical corps, he’s matched up with blustery family man Bruce Winston (Oliver Platt), who views his new partner as his ticket to the big leagues—specifically, a desk at the company’s Chicago office.

Before he can both start scoping out apartments on Lake Shore Drive, Jamie has to increase the number of Pfizer drugs being prescribed to patients, which means cozying up to medical professionals like Dr. Stan Knight (Hank Azaria), an influential general practitioner who enjoys the pampering he receives from deep-pocketed Big Pharma reps. While hanging around Knight’s office, Jamie crosses paths with Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), a drop-dead-gorgeous artist with a quick wit and an intoxicating lust for life. Maggie also happens to be in the first stages of Parkinson’s disease, a fact that comes to weigh heavily on Jamie as the two evolve from casual sex partners into a full-fledged couple.  

One of the defining characteristics of Zwick and Herskovitz’s TV work is a nuanced ear for the way men and women communicate; “thirtysomething” and “My So-Called Life” both offered remarkably believable and compelling depictions of adult (as well as teenage) relationships. Zwick’s feature films have never been as effective in this regard, perhaps because any romantic subplots that are included in the screenplays come across as an afterthought to the more high-minded issues the movies have been designed to address. (That was certainly the case with Blood Diamond, where Jennifer Connelly was awkwardly shoehorned into a narrative that had no use for her apart from giving Leonardo DiCaprio someone to flirt with.)

In Love & Other Drugs, though, Jamie and Maggie’s love affair is the engine that drives the story and it’s funny, sweet and, most of all, sexy, thanks in large part to Zwick’s decision to take advantage of his R rating and feature multiple scenes of his attractive stars in the buff. Titillation aside, the movie’s casual use of nudity establishes an intimacy between the actors that makes their onscreen relationship that much more believable. Zwick also benefits from his choice of leading lady. Not to turn this review into a mash note to Hathaway, but she’s luminous in the film, seducing the audience with the same killer smile and sharp sense of humor that make Jamie go week in the knees. Her co-star doesn’t slip into his role quite as effortlessly, although Gyllenhaal is far more likeable here than in his stilted turn in the would-be summer blockbuster Prince of Persia. As written, the character of Jamie Randall is tailor-made for an “ER”-era George Clooney, someone whose caddishness is part of his charm. Gyllenhaal has always had a gawkier screen presence; while he’s handsome enough for us to buy him as a chick magnet, he still exudes boyish enthusiasm instead of cool sophistication.

But Gyllenhaal isn’t the reason Love & Other Drugs ultimately fails to satisfy. Instead, the blame falls on Zwick, Herskovitz and Randolph for constructing a tedious third act that forces the lovers apart under contrived circumstances, only to resolve their dispute in an extremely superficial way in order to reach that all-important happy ending. The movie even makes room for the most groan-inducing part of any modern rom-com—the scene where one of the characters races after the other and makes a public declaration of love.

Zwick’s previously light touch with his Big Pharma critique turns leaden as well, as various characters bemoan the industry’s excesses and Jamie and Maggie quarrel over his desire to find a medical cure for her condition. (Indeed, the movie comes close to suggesting that love is the primary drug Maggie requires, which will be news to actual Parkinson’s sufferers.)

A great romantic comedy will send you out of the theatre convinced that the central couple is meant to be together despite the obstacles placed in their path. At the end of Love & Other Drugs, the best prescription for both characters would be to see other people.