Love & Other Drugs is an old-fashioned romance-and-sickness pic, a publicity-grabbing sex pic, an Apatow-lite horny-boys pic, and a liberal satire on pharmaceutical-industry excesses committed in pursuit of pill sales — all in one. Each ingredient has its uses in treating a specific audience. But the side effects of such an unstable Drugs cocktail on a general population may include episodes of queasiness and loss of appetite.
Consider the case of Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Maggie (Anne Hathaway). It’s 1996, and these two exorbitantly attractive singles meet kooky under conditions right up the alley of director and co-writer Edward Zwick, here harking back to the emotionally chewy content of TV series he used to produce, including thirtysomething and My So-Called Life. Maggie is a freewheeling artist with stage 1 Parkinson’s disease who doesn’t let illness get in the way of a lusty bedroom life. In the tradition of the genre, the heroine’s degenerative disease expresses itself discreetly, in a hand tremor, without marring her bohemian beauty. Jamie, the black-sheep son of an overachieving family, is a slick and likable pharmaceutical representative who is in the business for the money — and also because the script takes its vague muckraking agenda from the tell-all book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, by Jamie Reidy. (Prepare for many, many, many boner-related jokes.) After hours, though, Jamie is an impressive bed-hopper with believable skills, given Gyllenhaal’s charm and his excellent white teeth. So when the sales rep happens to sit in while one of his doctor clients examines Maggie (don’t tell the AMA about that little irregularity), and the lady flashes her breast, then throws Jamie a Howdy, salesman! smile, well, what’s a player to do?
Soon Maggie and Jamie are having sex — lots and lots and lots of sex, shot this way, and that, and then this way again. Grown-up shagging is probably what you’ve heard most about in the flirtatious promotion of Love & Other Drugs. (Gyllenhaal and Hathaway posed nude on the cover of the November 26 issue of Entertainment Weekly.) But it’s also the point at which things start to go wrong — and not because it’s a hardship to watch famous actors get naked and practice fake sex. Rather, it’s because, at just about the time Hathaway drops her garments, the movie begins to lose focus, unsure of what really matters to the filmmakers. Is it the sex angle, and the thrill of, how you call it, ”European-style” attention to bodies? The sick-person story that might once have starred Bette Davis? (Is Jamie strong enough to commit to a woman who can’t expect a cure, and is Maggie tough enough to let a man care for her?) Or is it the pharma-reform angle that formed the basis of this project in the first place and is, in its humanitarian agenda, probably closest to Zwick’s heart? This is, after all, a ”hot” movie willing to chill while Maggie attends a Parkinson’s support group in which real people with far more visible symptoms than hers make sharp jokes about the quality of their lives.
And then, in the midst of all this tonal whiplash, Zwick & Co. court another, younger, coarser constituency entirely. In a repellent role that ought to stop the comedy trend of fat, crude, immature Jonah Hill-y sidekick characters dead in its tracks, Josh Gad (a Daily Show irregular) barges in as Jamie’s younger brother, also named Josh. The guy is a gross, unsocialized, obnoxious boor who happens to be a multimillionaire thanks to a recent dotcom killing. Despite the moneybags, Josh’s wife kicks him out. (Can you imagine?) So Josh crashes his large, unkempt carcass on Jamie’s couch, spreads his rank collection of T-shirts and sweatpants around Jamie’s apartment, and, well (spoiler alert!), masturbates while watching a videotape of Jamie and Maggie getting busy. The character’s participation in the story contributes nothing, except maybe mild spasms of nausea on the part of the majority of the audience for whom Love & Other Drugs is presumably made. The movie trades on the kind of antique, sweethearts-in-a-clinch imagery suitable for stories of lovers bravely facing adversity. But what’s likely to linger in your memory after this romance-and-illness-and-sex-and-drug-company drama is the crude stuff, rather than the tender. Which is depressing. But there are pills for that. C+