Partly based on Jamie Reidy’s 2005 non-fiction memoir Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, Edward Zwick’s latest directorial offering Love & Other Drugs is yet another entry into the director’s seemingly favoured sub-genre of ‘issue-tainment’.
Unlike Zwick’s previous attempts, however, Love & Other Drugs finds the director trying to fuse the debate (this time surrounding privatised health care and ‘big pharma’) with the genre of romantic comedy. Does it work? Well, in truth, not really.
It’s clear from the opening of the movie – set in 1996 and therefore allowing the film-makers to stack the obligatory soundtrack album with lots of rather obvious hits from that period – that the film makers are attempting to make a movie that’s very much in the vein of Jerry Maguire. To that end we’re introduced to cocky, brash and seemingly irresistible to women Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal), the eldest son of a well-to do east coast family who’s dropped out of medical school and is instead drifting in and out of various unchallenging retail jobs. The initial scenes with Gyllenhaal at work in a stereo store are relatively entertaining, as his customers and female co-workers (and supposedly us too) are won over by his charm and cheesy patter.
However, the film hits its first significant stumbling block when we are introduced to Jamie’s family during a ‘quirky’ family dinner. It seems that Zwick expects us to buy the fact that Gyllenhaal, a criminally underused George Segal and the hyperactive, Seth Rogen/Jonah Hill-hybrid Jason Gad are all somehow related. Not only do we not believe that they’re related, but the actors themselves don’t give the impression of believing it either. And that’s a fundamental problem that runs throughout the movie – a lack of credibility and any sort of emotional truth.
Despite this credibility gap, the early parts of the movie do at least have some sort of pace and fun to them. Jamie’s rise through the Pfizer chemical ranks is quite well done, and his eventual graduation to on-the-road salesman alongside Pfizer vet Bruce Winston (the ever excellent Oliver Platt, giving the best performance in the movie by a mile) is quite entertaining, as are his interactions with Hank Azaria’s appropriately cynical Dr Stan Knight. However, it’s with the introduction of Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway) that things start to go seriously awry with the movie. Maggie is an artist you see, although an artist who never seems to sell any work or do anything other than screw inappropriate men during nameless and commitment free assignations. But wait! Maggie is more than just a shag-happy, free-sprit artist. She is – wait for it! – a shag-happy, free spirit artist with Parkinson’s disease.
The introduction of Maggie confuses the film no end. Until now we’ve been watching the story of an empty, but relatively successful young salesman climbing the sales ladder, but after Hathaway enters the frame the film seems to shatter into a million different pieces and the film-makers don’t really seem to have any conviction about where the story should go.
Is it the story of a heartless salesman finding love and responsibility in the arms of a woman with serious health issues? Or perhaps it’s about a woman blighted by disease who can’t forge meaningful relationships with men because of her illness? Maybe we’re watching a veiled meditation on the moral failings of the American pharmaceutical and health sectors? Or could we even be watching a gross-out comedy between two ill-matched flat mates that’s the missing link between The Odd Couple, Planes Trains and Automobiles and Superbad?
In fact, what we get is an unholy mixture of all those elements which never quite coheres or manages to make a cogent point about any of the issues it toys with.
A major flaw in the film’s make-up – beyond the lop-sided story and uneven tone – is the dreadful miscasting of Jake Gyllenhaal as Jamie. Admittedly, he isn’t aided by the lifeless writing, but the actor seems incapable of drilling below the surface of the material and bringing anything interesting to the part. Compare this performance to George Clooney’s in the wonderful Up In The Air (which ploughed similar terrain to far greater effect) or Tom Cruise’s star turn in Jerry Maguire and Gyllenhaal – much like the movie itself – simply pales into insignificance. Faring better than her male co-star is Anne Hathaway, who tries her best with the very on-the-nose material. On the whole, Maggie isn’t a particularly believable character, but in a number of scenes Hathaway at least makes you forget that and brings a certain amount of humanity and a certain girlish enthusiasm to the role that a lesser actress might squander.
But despite those isolated moments, when viewed as a whole, the film simply doesn’t work. Anne Hathaway may be perky, Jason Gad intermittently amusing and Oliver Platt hugely enjoyable, but none of them ever seem like they’re really in the same movie. And the ultimate responsibility for that falls at the feet of Edward Zwick, who continues to be one of Hollywood’s most frustratingly inconsistent film makers.
Follow Den Of Geek on Twitter right here.