Love and Other Drugs is brash and manic and sexy, then grim and weepy and self-consciously inspirational. It's madly uneven. But it's also one of the few romantic movies in the past few years with strong and insightful satirical undertones.
It's set in 1996, which wasn't quite the dawn of our psychopharmacological era -- though it was certainly the morning -- and Big Pharma sales-dude Jamie Randall, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is an early riser. He's a supple, smooth-faced, blue-eyed cutie whom women fall for even when they know that his ingenuousness is an act: It's more winning than other men's genuine ingenuousness.
Under the tutelage of a company mentor played by Oliver Platt, Jamie gets more and more accomplished at sweet-talking physicians and receptionists. His goal is to get doctors to prescribe his antidepressant, Zoloft, instead of his even slicker competitor's Prozac.
Even set in the past, the first half of Love and Other Drugs is a state-of-the-art zeitgeist sex comedy, and it's even more of a kick when Jamie's company comes out with the Holy Grail: Viagra. Suddenly, he doesn't have to labor to get physicians' attention. He's the most popular guy in town.
Not that Jamie needs the drug. He has sex all the time and no particular hankering for a relationship. But one woman brings him up short, an artist named Maggie Murdock, played by Anne Hathaway. They meet cute, or cute-slash-icky: He pays a doctor played by Hank Azaria to let him pretend to be an intern to observe how physicians operate, and Maggie is a patient with early-onset Parkinson's disease. She's furious when she discovers what Jamie really does -- but he bugs her until she meets him for a date.
Soon, they're in her apartment, frantically removing clothes, and there's no getting around it: Gyllenhaal and Hathaway are beautiful specimens. Once or twice they're buck-naked, which is the film's come-on. They're even on the cover of Entertainment Weekly without their shirts.
Director Edward Zwick made his name with the TV series thirtysomething and then moved on to Oscar-bait war movies. With Love and Other Drugs, he's rediscovered his inner Jason Reitman. Like Reitman's charismatically irresponsible protagonists in Thank You For Smoking and Up in the Air, Zwick's Jamie must develop a social conscience and learn to love.
The film's tone turns darker, as you know it will: It doesn't take much to see that Maggie is so tart and commitment-averse because she has a degenerative disease. And Jamie, though he desperately tries to help her, is powerless. He watches Maggie shepherd elderly men and women in a bus back and forth from Canada, where they can fill their prescriptions at a fraction of the prices set in the U.S., and he realizes that, as a drug rep, he's a cog in a machine he can't fully trust.
I think the movie would have been more on point if Maggie were depressed instead of afflicted with Parkinson's. With a more defined illness, the movie is on the soapy side. The surprise goes out of it, and the air, too. Hathaway is impressive in the first half, hard in a way that subtly signals her vulnerability. But in the second half, Zwick should have dialed her down.
In the end, half the audience will be drying their eyes and the other half rolling them. I was mostly in the latter camp, yet I like the movie's scope. It should also be said that romantic-comic weepers are drugs, too, and for all the mood swings this one induces, I feel reasonably confident prescribing it.