A film review by Craig J. Koban December 17, 2010


2010, R, 105 mins.


Anne Hathaway: Maggie / Jake Gyllenhaal: Jamie / Oliver Platt: Bruce / Hank Azaria: Dr. Knight / Josh Gad: Josh

Directed by Edward Zwick / Written by Charles Randolph, Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, based on the book "Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman" by Jamie Reidy

There are some rare films that manage to completely defy expectations, and Edward Zwick’s LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS is such a film.  

Just consider, if you will, its basic premise:  A young, hotshot Viagra salesman - circa late 1990’s - falls in love with a coffee-house waitress/part-time artist that is afflicted with Parkinson’s Disease.  Wow.  That’s a mouth full.  You not only have a potential Apatow-esque manchild comedy, but also a dramedy, a sly satire of the pharmaceutical sales industry, a whimsical look back at the social moirés of the previous decade, and a depilating sickness flick.  

Under less auspicious hands, LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS would have been simply too overstuffed and maudlin to bare, but Zwick and his fellow screenwriters Marshall Herskovitz and Charles Randolph manage to create an unusually cohesive and thoroughly involving film out of all of its disparaging parts.  The film is very loosely based on the non-fiction book HARD SELL: THE EVOLUTION OF A VIAGRA SALESMAN by Jamie Reidy (a former U.S. army officer that spent nine years with Pfizer selling their drugs) and it recalls some of Zwick’s earliest efforts in film and television dealing with character centric ensembles  (like ABOUT LAST NIGHT and THIRTYSOMETHING).  LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS is daring, challenging, smart, uber sexy, and surprisingly honest and touching in key moments, which makes it triumphantly stand well apart from other similar genre efforts. 

What’s really compelling here is what a stark and refreshing about-face Zwick has chosen with his career here, considering that he has made a rather stellar name for himself with lavishly and consummately mounted historical/war epics (like GLORY, THE LAST SAMURAI, and most recently BLOOD DIAMOND).  He manages to tackle his starkly adult-themed romcom with the precision of an auteur that has been grounded in the genre his entire career.  Not only does LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS conglomerate all of its various tones with an astute precision, but also it does a remarkable job of presenting a relationship involving mutually flawed lovers that deal with the brutal complications of their love.  There is a dramatic veracity and sense of character/thematic depth in LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS that I simply was not expecting. 

Even better is that the film contains too limitlessly likeable lead actors that foster such a potent chemistry with one another, which, after all, is one key ingredient that all romcoms desperately try to attain.  It's 1996 when we meet Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal, in an annoyingly manic performance in the first few minutes that thankfully settles down as the story progresses) that has dabbled in one commission job to the next after he left medical school.  After one afternoon on the job ends rather embarrassingly and leads to his termination, he decides that he will dabble in the delicate art of pharmaceutical sales and begins his training with Pfizer.  Where he may lack in experience he more than makes up for in terms of his outward charm, handsome mug, and his willingness to flirt with just about any skirt that walks by his path. 

After his training Jamie is teamed up with his supervisor - played by Oliver Platt in one of those deliciously motor-mouthed and cantankerously unhinged performances that only he is capable of  – and is given several high pressure pep talks on what it takes to sell Zoloft.  Jamie’s early attempts at selling the product are failures, especially when his super aggressive nemesis salesman, Trey Hannigam (Gabriel Macht) manages to outdo him at every walking moment.  Jamie decides to kick things into overdrive and begins to take desperate measures, like infiltrating hospitals and walk-in clinics and flirting with as many pretty receptionists as possible.  Some of his idle flirtations lead to nights in the sack with some of them, a task that Jamie’s King Kong-sized appetite for sex and women can handle with relative ease. 

He does manage to get into the good books with one doctor (well played in a small supporting performance by Hank Azaria) that culminates with him allowing Jamie to impersonate an intern so that he can observe his interactions with patients (I sincerely hope this is not a reality in most doctor’s offices).  This leads to one of the oddest meet-cutes I’ve ever seen:  A very lovely looking, but ill Stage 1 Parkinson’s patient named Maggie (Anne Hathaway) makes a visit and asks the doctor to inspect an odd, but ultimately benign growth on her left breast.  Jamie excitedly looks on as she disrobes for the inspection, but later in the parking lot she discovers who he is and physically accosts him (can you blame her?). 

It is at this point where LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS begins to find some very secure narrative footing:  Jamie manages to find Maggie’s phone number and, miraculously enough, convinces her to come out for coffee with him, which leads very quickly to a sexual rendezvous back at her loft (the typically cool and confident Jamie is hilariously befuddled with the discovery of how easy it is to get her into bed).  They both decide that a physical relationship is perhaps the best thing for both of them: Besides, Jamie has his sights set on a big sales gig in Chicago and Maggie, a woman that will only get sicker with time, wants no long-term emotional entanglements.  They both are content with just getting laid….a lot. 

Complications ensue when Jack begins to find it difficult to internalize his feelings for Maggie the more time he spends with her.  It becomes even more problematical when he finds himself becoming one of the primary salesmen of a new "it" drug of choice for erectile dysfunction called Viagra, which may be his ticket to the big leagues of pharmaceutical sales.  However, the more he shares his life with Maggie the more puerile and valueless his vocation begins to seem to him.  Although Maggie reciprocates love and affection back, she remains curiously guarded from him in the sense that she uses her disease as a barrier against forming life-long ties with men.   

What is really fundamentally interesting about LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS is that it never sensationalizes Maggie’s disease for schmaltzy effect.  The film manages to hold Parkinson sufferers with a considerable amount of respect and one of the most memorable and touching scenes involves Maggie attending a seminar where those afflicted use humor, compassion with each other, and dignity to combat the disease.  Another frank and revealing moment occurs between Jamie and another man who is a husband to a woman with Parkinson; without hesitation, he tells Jamie to find another soul mate as quickly as possible so he does waste his life caring for every need of Maggie, who will get worse.  The central quandary of Jamie is that he begins to not only struggle with the inconsequentiality of his job, but also with what it will mean to spend his life with a woman that makes him feel complete, but will nonetheless become more frail with every yearMaggie, on the other hand, needs to combat her own stubborn internal drives that hamper her long-term willingness to be a soul mate to Jamie. 

The flaws of the lovers in question make LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS ring more truly and tenderly than most romcoms.  These are not perfect people cut from the lamentably sanitized PG-13 sitcom-styled romcoms that are a dime-a-dozen these days: Maggie and Jamie are handled with a maturity and thoughtfulness, so much so that their dicey path towards everlasting love begins to feel that much more palpable and relatable.  The film becomes a tale of personal growth and shared acceptance and how painfully complicated it becomes for both Jamie and Maggie to allow each other into their lives.  They both, in simple ways, have to learn how to love when their sexual relationship morphs into something more meaningful.  Hathaway plays her role with such a disquieting grace, intelligence, and warmth, but Gyllenhaal perhaps has the trickiest arc because his character traverses across the largest transformation: he goes from a cocky and arrogant womanizer to a humble, caring, and selfless suitor to Maggie who respects and wants to help with her needs. 

LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS is not a perfect picture: the satirical jabs at the drug industry and the guerrilla tactics they employ to sell their product is not as incisively crafted as it could have been, not to mention that, in the end, the film does not in any way require itself to be set in the 1990’s or concern itself about Viagra at all, the latter element which seems to be ostensibly used to set up some crude jokes and a very conventional gag involving the notorious side-effects of taking the drug.  There is also a side character of Jamie’s younger brother, played by Josh Gad, that seems to be superficially inserted into the film for the purposes of lewd comic relief…and not much else.  He contributes very little to the larger scheme of the story of Jamie and Maggie’s personal struggles. 

These, alas, are nitpicks, because LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS is one of the most refreshingly adult romcoms released this year, and by adult I mean two things: Firstly, the film has a gutsy bravado and displays none of the inhibitions of typical studio films whatsoever when it comes to its unusually audacious and graphic sex scenes and nudity (the two stars are shed vanity and timidity when it comes to revealing copious amounts of flesh, which gives the film a fly-on-the-wall spontaneity, immediacy, and stark intimacy with dealing with their relationship).  Secondly, Zwick's film just feels more mature in the essence that it does away with lame contrivances and clichés that permeate so many forgettable romcoms.  Yes, the film ends conventionally and follows many of the genre’s basic conventions, but LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS overcomes them by being an uncommonly illuminating and engaging exploration into how people learn to triumph over personal obstacles on the passageway to self-acceptance and mutual adoration.  With so many infantile-minded youth-centric love stories, I appreciated how this one was crafted for viewers well beyond puberty.

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