Monday, April 25, 2011

Too Much "Love," Not Enough "Drugs"

I like both Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, but I don't think either of them have had enough chances to show us much beyond the likable screen personas we tend to associate them with. They both make excellent movie stars, no doubt, but their darker, more interesting roles, have a tendency to be overlooked. Hathaway is probably better remembered for hosting the Oscars than being nominated for one, and Gyllenhaal can't seem to escape the vestiges of his lovable loser role from "Donnie Darko," whether he's playing a gay cowboy or a shell-shocked jarhead. Edward Zwick's "Love and Other Drugs," seemed to be a good opportunity for both of them to stretch a little, playing caustic lovers who trade sarcastic barbs instead of sweet nothings, but the film is a real mess.

Set in the mid 90s, "Love" comes off as a dark, satirical comedy at first. It charts the rise of Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal), a newly minted drug representative for Pfizer, trained to push new drugs samples on doctors, using any means necessary. Jamie goes to war with a rival (Gabriel Macht) to win over the influential Dr. Knight (Hank Azaria), with the goal of getting him to replace prescriptions of Prozac with prescriptions of Pfizer's new Zoloft. Through Knight, Jamie meets Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), a young woman suffering from early-onset Parkinsons disease. Maggie wants nothing to do with romance, but is all for enthusiastic, no-strings-attached sex with Jamie. Of course the relationship gets complicated, which means it falls right back into the pattern of a very generic movie relationship. Jamie finds new success shilling Viagra, Maggie's illness worsens, and suddenly the snark gives way to sentiment, and the satire all but evaporates without a trace.

Gyllenhaal and Hathaway have some good charisma together, but their performances just aren't very interesting. Gyllenhaal's starts out as a brash, fast-talking serial womanizer who seems like a junior version of Aaron Eckhart's character in "Thank You For Smoking." Hathaway's Maggie is the dark version of the manic-pixie-dreamgirl, who is artsy and impulsive, but also brimming over with ironic dialogue and salty insults. And then the film has them slowly reveal that they're both just damaged, fluffy bunnies underneath all the snark and defense mechanisms. Sure, they have their problems, but it's nothing that a good last-minute confession scene won't solve. The portrayal of the romance is somewhat more daring than the norm, I suppose, in that we see several shots of Hathaway's character naked, and her nickname for Gyllenhaal includes a loving expletive, but it's all way too self-conscious and on the nose.

What I found the most disappointing abut "Love and Other Drugs," though, was how it failed to do anything interesting with all the material about drug industry practices, which the first half of the film does a great job of setting up. We're shown that Jamie and his fellow reps are unscrupulous, but there's very little negative fallout from their tactics. We don't hear anything about the adverse effects of Zoloft that were subsequently discovered, or the ethics concerns about doctors having such close ties to major drug companies. Eventually Jamie's rivalry with the Prozac pusher disappears into the background, and we start to get the feeling that maybe everything involving the prescription drug racket was window dressing to begin with. Or maybe Pfizer sicced their lawyers on Zwick and had the latter half of the film neutered.

Speaking of Zwick, this is his first attempt at lighter material since the early 90s, after a string of epic dramas like "Defiance," "Blood Diamond," and "The Last Samurai." The first half of "Love and Other Drugs" was a little bumpy, but I enjoyed it, especially the early scenes of Gyllenhaal behaving badly. I'd be happy to see Zwick try his hand at another comedy, because he does show promise with this kind of material, and it's good to see him doing something different. In this case, however, much like his lead actors, he ends up falling back on what he's most comfortable with - heartfelt drama and an uplifting ending. It wouldn't have been so bad if there hadn't been that tonal 180 in the last act, and the various pieces of the picture didn't end up so mismatched.

Finally, I want to point out some of the film's strong supporting performances that deserve attention. Josh Gad as Jamie's brother is an earthy, lovable lug with a good character arc. Oliver Platt shows up for too few brief scenes as Bruce, an older drug rep. Hank Azaria's Dr. Knight is just neurotic enough without going over the top, and I wanted to see more of George Segal and Jill Clayburgh as Jamie's parents.

No comments:

Post a Comment