Easily qualifying as one of 2010’s odder romantic comedies, Love & Other Drugs is an awkward and half-hearted attempt to inject contemporary skepticism into a weary formula: call it a faux edgy rom-com.
It’s more watchable than most of it’s ilk, due to the undeniable chemistry of its two leads (Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway) and their great supporting cast, but in the end it’s an unsatisfying experience, even within the limited expectations one should bring to this lightest of genres. Love & Other Drugs lacks the courage of any convictions which might make its cynicism feel like something more than seasoning inadequately sprinkled over a mundane story.
Gyllenhaal and Hathaway make an almost impossibly beautiful couple; as always, she glows magnificently in that way that screen goddesses do, and he exudes a naughty boy-ish allure that is almost palpable. Gyllenhaal’s effortless charm is the centre of his portrayal of Jamie Randall, the n’er do well son of a successful medical family (his parents are seen in one early family dinner scene which is included to reinforce his black sheep bona fides; the scene is more notable for including the second to last screen appearance of the late Jill Clayburgh, who plays Randall’s mother). Randall has opted out of entering the family business and is a lazy, callow young man who drifts along on his formidable seductive powers.
After being fired from his job as an electronics store salesman, a family connection helps get Randall into the sales training programme for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, and after completion of his training he is taken under the wing of old hand field rep Bruce Winston (the always entertaining Oliver Platt). Bruce quickly realises that his handsome young protege is his ticket away from the drudgery of the road and in to a top position in Chicago if he can harness and utilise Randall’s star potential to drive their sales.
The film’s major failing is that it treats the ugliness which is the centre of the pharmaceutical industry and Randall’s involvement in it as nothing more than playful story fodder. From the rah-rah Americanisms of Pfizer’s sales training indoctrination (some of it playing like a Stark Industries product presentation a la Iron Man) to the willfully manipulative ways in which the pharma sales reps work to persuade physicians to prescribe their proprietary medications rather than their rivals’, there is a deeply amoral brand of capitalism on display, which Randall gleefully embraces.
While courting a key physician in a blatant attempt to bribe him to prescribe Pfizer’s Zoloft instead of the rival Prozac, he impersonates an intern while the doctor (Huff’s Hank Azaria) sees a patient. The patient, Maggie Murdock (Hathaway), is suffering from early onset Parkinson’s Disease, a degenerative neurological disorder which can be treated but can’t be arrested. In the course of the examination she exposes her breast, and when she discovers afterwards that ‘intern’ Randall is actually a sales rep, she quite rightly attacks him in the car lot before stalking off.
There is something remarkably unsavoury about using Randall’s (and the complicit physician’s) unethical, sleazy behaviour as the mechanism for a rom-com ‘meet cute.’ It feels as if the film’s creators have noted the intriguing ways in which innovative U.S. cable series have darkly re-imagined genre and characterisation, but having two of contemporary cinema’s bigger stars in the leads means that the most they can get away with is a sort of indie-lite approach. The nudity in the film, which is fairly frequent, is clearly included to add credibility, but in fact it is choreographed in such a coy manner (with not so much as a fleeting flash of exposed genitals) that it has the opposite effect of hipness, looking clumsy and obviously blocked to satisfy the actors’ modesty.
Love & Other Drugs is a concoction of ill fitting parts; it’s a studio movie, not a scrappy independent, so it has both eyes firmly on a (mainly female) box office. It tries however to raise itself above the blandness of the mainstream pack by having as its romantic leads a feckless, amoral lothario and a messed up beauty who talks with the machine-gun verbosity of a screwball comedy heroine. It cheerfully showcases the exploitative practices of ‘big pharma’ without so much as wagging a reproachful finger at the avarice of the industry: it’s simply a comically naughty milieu that Randall needs love to retrieve him from (pegging love as a curative in a film in which Viagra features prominently is another of the film’s clumsy devices).
Perhaps I need to just take a pill and chill though, and not be so demanding of a film as trifling as this one. There is possibly just enough dark shadings here to make it titillating to those who haven’t watched any of the truly inspired contemporary genre re-workings that Love & Other Drugs seems slightly inspired by.