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Love stories are essentially the same — it’s a matter of how you dress them up. Many will see through Love and Other Drugs and count the romance clichés and formulaic characters, others will find the 1996 setting and the pharmaceutical angle refreshing. Both forces are hard at work in this film, but the tipping point goes in favor thanks to the leads, Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway.
There’s a reason most romantic films are judged based on the chemistry of their lead actors. When it comes to romance, it’s not about how cleverly written the two characters are and how unique and special they feel to us. What counts is whether they can convince you of their attraction/love and get you to — without blunt coercion — invest in what happens to them. Gyllenhaal and Hathaway have what it takes to do just that in spite of a script that sometimes tries to lean too hard on conventional tactics of boys meets girl.
Gyllenhaal plays Jamie, an expert salesman who lands a gig as a pharmaceutical sales rep for Pfizer, right before Viagra hit the market. He’s also adept at landing any woman he desires. He epitomizes a Don Juan and he’s plays the type well, but when you can predict that he’ll end up in bed with the next attractive woman that shows up on screen, the writing has taken it a bit far.
As good of a filmmaker as Edward Zwick is, his best credits include Glory, The Last Samurai and The Blood Diamond — not exactly romance. He co-wrote the script (based on Jamie Reidy’s memoir) with longtime collaborator Marshall Herskovitz and thriller writer Charles Randolph (The Interpreter), so no real romantic comedy prowess exists among them, hence the tendency to stick with genre conventions. One such convention is Jamie’s brother (Josh Gad), who plays the little brother crashing on Jamie’s couch who has a porn addiction and makes clueless statements, usually to the tune of no laughs, but he does help break the tension.
Enter girl. Jamie meets Maggie, a bit of a free-spirited cynic who (in a unique twist) has way early onset Parkinson’s. Many will be quick to jump on the “diseased girl” archetype, but don’t judge Hathaway’s prowess that quickly. As completely pathetic as Maggie’s self-esteem might be and how strictly anti-commitment she is, when her character caves in to the romance as they all do, Hathaway gives Maggie a believable fragility rather than a melodramatic tone.
Jamie’s motives for wanting to spend more time with Maggie and not simply continuing his streak of banging all who possess lady parts are reduced to the reason of “she’s playing hard to get,” which is not the best of reasons. The same can be said about Maggie constantly accusing Jamie of having pity sex with the diseased girl. However, watching these two charm each other and overcome the cliché has a definite appeal.
The two spend a lot of naked time together, making Love and Other Drugs the best date movie this holiday season. But on a serious note, the drug angle and the “recent past” setting give us something else to chew on, which is nice. Zwick never truly marries that story line with the romance except “Jamie sells drugs and Maggie has a disease that lacks an effective one.” The thematic ties are not quite there despite the plot coincidences and the fitting title.
Love and Other Drugs is hardly the cure for the common romantic comedy, but the consistent dosage of its two stars by and large pushes away those symptoms.
Love and Other Drugs
Directed by Edward Zwick
Written by Charles Randolph, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz and Jamie Reidy (book)
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway