Edward Zwick is a bit of a wild card with his films. He constantly experiments with the subject matter of his films and he has his share of advocates and adversaries. His works often divide critics and Love and Other Drugs was no exception. Plus, it was dumped into the markets rather unceremoniously by 20th Century Fox. Despite this, I looked forward to the film with some anticipation. And it wasn’t in vain because even though it isn’t an extremely well crafted motion picture, I found it highly refreshing in its frank, honest take on adult relationships.
The film is set in the late 1990s. Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal), an aimless, empty womaniser is trying to make a career in the highly competitive pharmaceutical market as a sales representative. He flirts his way up; it’s a part of his job description. On one of his sales visits, he meets Maggie (Anne Hathaway), a carefree artist who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. What starts out as just casual sex gradually develops into romance which soon gets complicated as her disease and his career path are moving in opposite directions.
With Love and Other Drugs, Zwick moves into entirely uncharted territory i.e. romantic comedies. The script has its moments and they are peppered throughout the film such that the proceedings are rarely dull. The conversations between the two lead characters are always interesting and insightful. The humour moves beyond jokes and gags and relies on wit, irony and sarcasm. Thankfully, the writing is also solid in the dramatic portions as well. In fact, it is these portions that stay with you. The scene where an old man tells Jamie of his experience of living with his wife suffering from Parkinson’s disease is brutally painful in its honesty. Hathaway’s outburst when she is unable to get her medication is also extremely well done.
Thematically, the film does come off as an awkward mix of romance, comedy and social commentary. It succeeds most in the as a love story as it doesn’t try to do much with the rest. Had these been integrated better into the narrative, then we would have a classic on our hands. Nevertheless, Zwick uses Maggie's disease and pharmaceutical industry (particularly the introduction of Viagra in the market) well as plot devices to move the romance forward. Thankfully, he refrains from being preachy and never moves the focus away from the romance. The dialogues are stunning in places, particularly in the second half of the film. The sex is fairly graphic, a rarity in an American film with mainstream stars but it is also emotional and aesthetic, which is a rarity in American films altogether.
The film also benefits from bravura performances from Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal, both of whom shed all inhibitions for the camera, quite literally so. Their chemistry is electric. Gyllenhaal is very good as the funny and charming Jamie and brings out the transformation of his character quite well. But it is Hathaway who steals the show. She is absolutely outstanding as an outgoing, assertive woman struggling with a debilitating disease at a young age. She particularly performs exceedingly well in portraying the character at her most vulnerable and volatile. It is remarkable to note how much she has grown as an actor from The Princess Diaries or even The Devil Wears Prada. It is on their broad shoulders that the film rests and they deliver excellent performances.
I guess the best way to see Love and Other Drugs is to see it as a love story set in the backdrop of the pharmaceutical market in the mid-1990s. It works that way quite well. It has moments of outrageous humour and emotional resonance in equal measure. It’s not a particularly strong comment on the state of the practice of medicine in the United States. But I don’t think it was ever intended to be. For that, I highly recommend Michael Moore’s Sicko. This film is for those who like a dose of honesty in their romantic comedies. It is not the classic it could have been given that the film appears quite disjointed in portions. Even so, it still qualifies as a heart-warming, earnest and oh-so-adult romance whose honesty sets it apart from the legion of trashy romances and rom-coms.