Friday, November 26, 2010

Love and Other Drugs: Good medicine

Love and Other Drugs (2010) • View trailer for Love and Other Drugs
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for nudity, strong sexual content, profanity and drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.26.10

Early into Love and Other Drugs, novice pharmaceuticals rep Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal) shadows Dr. Stan Knight (Hank Azaria) as a means of currying favor with this potential client.

Dr. Knight has something of a mischievous streak – not to mention a fondness for attractive women – and therefore allows Jamie to attend a routine exam with new patient Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway). She doesn’t think anything of Jamie’s presence, assuming an intern/doctor relationship; the situation turns eyebrow-raising when, as the exam concludes, she asks the doctor to take a quick look at one of her breasts.
Maggie (Anne Hathaway) can't stand Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) at first sight, but
of course that'll change; how could any woman resist his endearing, aw-shucks

The scene is staged for its erotic potential – Jamie about to enjoy a quick glimpse of forbidden fruit – and we figure, hey, it’s Anne Hathaway; director Edward Zwick will shoot the scene from behind her, preserving the actress’ modesty and allowing us to see Gyllenhaal’s Jake try not to appear lecherous. Plenty of comic potential there.

But no: The camera doesn’t cut to a different angle as Hathaway slips out of her top, and suddenly we become complicit in Jamie’s sneak peek … and the resulting scene, handled with bland insouciance by Hathaway, becomes even more erotic.

This scene is typical of Zwick’s approach in this film, which soon becomes unexpectedly, deliciously earthy and carnal in the manner of a cheerful French sex romp: a tone very few American-made films ever pull off. The film’s three screenwriters – Charles Randolph, Marshall Herskovitz and Zwick, loosely adapting Jamie Reidy’s book, Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman (and no doubt that little nugget of information just made your eyebrows shoot up) – understand that young couples in the throes of a new relationship spend a lot of time in bed, and also spend a lot of time OUT of bed, but still in the buff, rejoicing in their shared exposed selves.

Hathaway and Gyllenhaal, bless ’em, are game for anything; as a result, we connect with these characters at a level of intimacy that seems at odds with the film’s often mocking tone.

It’s a deft juggling act, but Zwick pulls it off. Love and Other Drugs veers wildly from one mood to another, ranging from playful sexiness and blatant comedy to increasingly powerful poignance. We watch the story itself blossom from adolescent foolishness to adult maturity, much the way Maggie helps Jamie grow up and become a better person.

Jamie is introduced as the ne’er-do-well member of an otherwise accomplished family, bright but self-destructive, and running a distant second to a dweebish younger brother – the hilarious Josh Gad – who scored a big hit with an Internet start-up. It’s the 1990s, and such things remain possible; the trouble is, Jamie has only one talent: scoring with chicks.

But that’s not entirely true. Jamie’s actual talents are charm and persuasion – Gyllenhaal’s engaging, naughty-little-boy smirk is put to excellent and frequent use – both of which (theoretically) come in useful when he decides to become a salesman for the Pfizer drug company. After a hilarious corporate “boot camp” session staged as a laugh-laden montage, Jamie is assigned a territory and handed over to veteran salesman Bruce Winston (Oliver Platt), a tireless, go-getting Obi-Wan Kenobi who dreams of inheriting the prime territory in Chicago.

A word about Platt: Like Jeff Goldblum, whose similar talents are on display in Morning Glory, Platt is one of Hollywood’s unsung secret weapons: a gifted character actor generally found in smallish supporting roles, whose mordant line deliveries are pitch-perfect. Platt can stun us into submission with a quick sideways glance, and then pulverize us with an impeccably delivered bon mot. He’s a performance genius, and this film – any film – is lucky to have him.

Jamie’s early escapades are the sort of casual romp one would expect from such a free spirit, as when he seduces a medical office receptionist – the always delightful Judy Greer – as a means of getting his samples to the doctors within. The tone shifts after he meets Maggie, but not just because she beats him about the head and charges off in a huff, after learning of the sneaky little deception cited at the top of this review.

At first, he pursues her because she’s unattainable. But then she surprises him with a wham-bam approach to sexual gratification that’s even more casual than his own. There’s a reason for this, of course, and that’s when this narrative finally reveals its true colors: Maggie has early-onset Parkinson’s.

At this point, Love and Other Drugs begins to resemble Sweet November, in all the best ways. (I refer only to the charming 1968 original, with Anthony Newley and Sandy Dennis, not the dreadful 2001 remake, with the emotionally crippled Keanu Reeves).

Maggie maintains her distance as a defense mechanism, seizing physical release with the desperation of a gourmand who fears she’ll soon be unable to enjoy such pleasures.

OK, yes, to a degree this film suffers from what Roger Ebert years ago dubbed “Ali MacGraw’s Disease,” in the wake of that actress’ performance in Love Story: “a movie illness in which the only symptom is that the sufferer grows more beautiful as death approaches.” Not entirely true, of course, and Hathaway can’t help looking gorgeous.

More to the point, such a blanket dismissal is unfair both to Hathaway’s quiet, richly shaded performance, and to those who actually suffer from Parkinson’s (as Michael J. Fox would be quick to insist). There’s no reason Maggie wouldn’t continue to be radiant, even as she proves increasingly unable to control the tremors that compromise her abilities as an artist.

Zwick doesn’t dwell on Maggie’s trembling hands, nor does Hathaway oversell the situation. And because she and Gyllenhaal have built up so much good will by this point, and gathered us into their very souls, we can’t help pulling for them.

The stakes become huge: The guy who never gave a second thought about fidelity or maintaining a relationship suddenly wants both … but has encountered a gal even more inclined to be just as superficial as he once was.

At first blush, this material seems an odd choice for Zwick, who of late has been associated with heroic, large-canvas dramas such as Glory, Legends of the Fall, The Last Samurai and Defiance. We forget that Zwick cut his teeth on candid, often earthy relationship studies such as television’s “thirtysomething” and 1986’s big-screen adaptation of David Mamet’s play, About Last Night… Indeed, Zwick is as perfect for Love and Other Drugs as both Hathaway and Gyllenhaal.

Even so, this film is something of an odd duck, and some will be put off by its wild mood swings. I was charmed, misfit romantic comedies being among my favorite movie pleasures. Love and Other Drugs is sexy, funny, sweet and sad … and if our lives don’t have such depth and variety, well, that’s why we go to the movies.

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