Charming, effervescent and genuinely engaging, Ed Zwick's most recent feature-length effort, "Love And Other Drugs" is his best picture in ages and largely succeeds despite pulling far too hard on your emotional heartstrings in the second half of the film.
A witty and entertaining cross between, "Jerry Maguire," "Say Anything" and maybe even Jason Reitman's "Up In The Air," (though not as subdued) the picture may be seen in some quarters as being in the vein of a Cameron Crowe-like romantic dramedy classic, and it would be if it weren't all too familiar. But for all its formula and sometimes overly mawkish tendencies — cue the James Newton Howard score that just overdoes it by a few notes here and there — the picture still succeeds thanks to the palpable, sometimes almost electric chemistry between its two leads Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, the latter of which may have just entered the Oscar race (and in doing so could bump out the more deserving Jennifer Lawrence from a much smaller picture).
While fairly conventional, the drama with lots of comedic overtones is largely immensely enjoyable and strikes the crowd-pleasing, feel-goodery note resoundingly well. What strikes a savvy audience member is how the different the picture is from Zwick's now-become-tiresome, sweeping, heroic epics ("The Last Samurai," "Defiance," the still-great "Glory") and how tonally similar it is to his character-driven TV-created works ("Thirtysomething," "Quarter Life," "My So Called Life"). Then one has to wonder why Zwick waited so damn long to bring those life-challenging sensibilities to the big screen (his last picture to this effect was 1986's "About Last Night...")
Set in 1996, and partly based on James Reidy's "Hard Sell: Evolution of a Viagra Salesman," "Love And Other Drugs" starts off like a shot and with a sharp, quippy, rapid-fire banter and pace that's not unlike David Fincher's "The Social Network." Co-written by co-written by Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz and Charles Randolph, an early family dinner scene zips around like a restless Howard Hawks-film and there's some interesting shades of Altman-esque overlapping dialogue. These tendencies, minus the Billy Wilder-like humanistic tones tend to fade into the background as the film eventually eases into a more digestible rhythm, but the brushstrokes are appreciated and snap you right into attention.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Jamie Randall, the handsome, intelligent prodigal son from an affluent, successful family who has trainwrecked his waiting-for-him medical career in favor of becoming the family black sheep; alternating between one menial job to another (George Segal and Jill Clayburgh play the parents and are so good you wish they'd come back for another scene). Also a careless, vainglorious A-1 asshole womanizer, Randall's just been bounced from his ignoble electronics-store job for fucking his bosses' girlfriend. But sales (not to mention burgeoning ambition), and the irresistible charm that precipitates enticing consumption, seems to be deep within his blood. His crude younger brother (Josh Gad, the comic relief that's sometimes funny, sometimes plain and boorishly unnecessary) is a curious paradox; he's just sold a multi-million dollar computer IPO in his mid 20s and is set for life, but has the romantic, social skills and mien of a slovenly troll. But baby brother needs a respectable job and the only over 100K entry level job is in pharmaceutical drug sales (geez, how did we miss this boat in the '90s).
Randall is sent off to work for giant drug manufacturer Pfizer, and does time at a high-energy pharmaceutical sales brainwashing bootcamp where the cut-throat propaganda (and very questionable practices) of "show-me-the-drug-money" is shoved down his throat. He takes to his new gig like a duck to water and is paired off with his new sales boss (a beguiling Oliver Platt) who also crams one message down his throat: find a way to upsell Zoloft over Prozac and reach the promised land of Chicago, escaping the Ohio-set, small jerkwater-burg town they've been consigned to.
Soon, Randall is learning the dubious tricks of the drug rep trade, schmoozing and bedding nurses and receptionists and all but bribing physicians like Dr. Knight (an excellent Hank Azaria, who embodies the quiet arrogance and yet compassion that many doctors seem to have). But the pharmaceutical business and its corrupt ways is just color and an entry point into the film's real apologue: a story about two selfish, noncommittal and emotionally detached individuals who have to learn how to love.
Clichés do abound. To wit: Gyllenhaal's Randall is the arrogant, fucking-for-sport lothario who finally meets his match in the equally carefree, irreverent and brassy Maggie (Anne Hathaway); one of Dr. Knight's Parkinson's disease-stricken patients that he is immediately taken with. And yet, their chemistry is so strong it's easy to overlook any pedestrian beats. It's easy to see why Maggie is so fetching as the classically aloof, intelligent, sharp-tongued and bewitching free-spirit who is just as eager to hop in the sack with absolutely no strings attached.
Initially, their sex is animalistic and carnal at (and both actors are very visibly naked throughout much to the delight of both sexes), but as their intimacy reluctantly grows — Maggie is pathologically reticent to get involved — so does their ability to evince vulnerability. Hathaway shines as Maggie, imbuing the character with an irresistible vixen-like quality; you want to strangle her and yet you're completely enamored. So as the picture evolves, it moves from "Fuckbuddies" to "Tears Of Endearment" with modern sensibilities. Maggie pulls away due to her fear and abandonment issues (she doesn't want anyone to be beholden to her slowly growing disease) and the once ego-centric alpha male fratboy falls head over heels while still sometimes feeling somewhat hesitant about the long road ahead of them (a convention about Parkinson's and its eventual brutal hardships rattles his core). These story elements — and the doomed love affair storyline — are obviously commonplace, and its in this second half where the picture may start to lose more discerning audience members and or, more likely, cynical critics.
Occasionally the picture loses its way into farcical detours and the tone shifts from witty first half to solemn, tear-jerking second half can feel unsatisfying, but this will likely be more of a subjective dealbreaker or non-issue. Where "Up In The Air" and its equally shallow characters was too subtle and didn't open up its emotional valve enough to feel cathartic, "Love & Other Drugs" simply lets too much emotional air into the room. What kills "Love And Other Drugs," or at least prevents it from achieving the A-grade its seemingly very capable of scoring initially, is the just slightly overwrought notes in the emotionally ballooning final act. Dialing it all back a bit and adjusting the sentimental calibrations just thusly could have done the picture serious wonders. But Zwick can't restrain himself and goes for broke. Musical score swells with the too-obvious "insert tears here" cues, and the close-ups, oh the close-ups. This is the characters emotional climax, we get it, but that doesn't prevent soap-opera-like zooms to try and wrench unnecessary blood from a stone (ironically, where the score fails him here, Howard's work on Zwick's "Defiance" was its saving grace and earned him an Oscar nomination for his efforts). Both performances are top notch and these maneuvers are very unnecessary. Still, these are ultimately small problems in a picture that is still very affecting, entertaining and endearing (though you do have to shave a few more points off for the unfortunate montage/voiceover final sequence that wraps up everything in a little bow: its as if the filmmaker didn't know how to close so he tacked this on and hoped it worked -- it doesn't). Conversely, some moments read/sound hallmark-ish and treacly, and its a testament to these actors that the scenes convincingly transcend their mawkish center and at times are quite affecting.
But if the score and sentiment is slightly overcooked, the details are spot on. '90s nostalgia-heads will love the period-piece details (Magnovox TV's, pagers, early Apple computers, flip phones) and the pop-filled soundtrack which features a lot of intentionally dated (and bad) music (Spin Doctors) and good tunes too (Beck's "Jackass" and '90s-era Dylan are utilized to strong effect).
Though "Love And Other Drugs" has its blemishes and flaws, the dramedy is undeniably infectious in spots and there's no doubt that Zwick has a audience-friendly, crowd-pleasing hit on his hands that could even nudge its way into the Oscar race. Captivating, bright and attractive, with a few soulful moments (and yes, the occasional eye-rolling one too), Zwick's latest manages to balance crisp humor, sex-as-currency themes, melancholy and romanticism in an above-average mélange that's usually never too melodramatic or over-dramatized. Too sophisticated to simply be labeled a romantic-comedy and all things considered, "Love & Other Drugs" is a pretty vivacious little dose of pleasing pop cinema with a pulse that should engage the heart and stimulate the brain. [B]