If Love and Other Drugs was an actual person, it would quickly be diagnosed with multiple personality disorder. The movie attempts simultaneously to be a romantic comedy, cultural commentary and quirky indie drama. While overall the movie, which is based on Jamie Reidy’s non-fiction book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, is enjoyable and certainly worthy of viewing, it would be more successful if it simplified its storytelling. As it is, the film feels somewhat disjointed.
Love and Other Drugs follows the romantic and professional life of Jamie Randall, a twenty-something pharmaceutical salesman working for Phizer in the late nineties. Quickly established as a playboy and the disappointment of his overachieving family, Jamie—despite his smarts—has an insatiable need to please his parents and prove himself worthy. When juxtaposed with his younger brother, the lonely but loveable loser type who made his millions in the software business (think a cockier Jonah Hill), Jamie’s self-consciousness and feelings of inadequacy seem all the more perplexing. As played by Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie is instantly charming, and Gyllenhaal again reinforces his status as one of the leading actors of his generation.
Jamie soon meets Maggie Murdock, a free-spirited but emotionally unavailable artist who, unlike most female characters in romantic comedies, is completely satisfied being single. From her grunge, boho-chic style of dress to her artsy photo collages and expansive loft, Maggie’s life very much evokes the inside of an Urban Outfitters catalogue.
But here’s the kicker: Maggie has early onset Parkinson’s disease, which has convinced her that any semblance of a meaningful relationship is fruitless with her degenerative disease. The film’s message here is blaringly apparent: even pretty people have problems.
As Maggie, Anne Hathaway once again shows her ability to play a variety of characters. Her portrayal of Maggie’s Parkinson’s feels painfully honest.
Maggie’s disease is almost like another character in the movie. It both cripples and empowers her and acts as the proverbial giant elephant in the room. The illness represents a departure from typical rom-com fare. Some of the most powerful scenes involve her and Jamie’s struggle with the physical and emotional aspects of the cureless disease.
Jamie and Maggie’s relationship—at first purely physical—soon progresses into something far more serious. Jamie wins Maggie over in typical romantic comedy fashion, but after this progression, the movie takes an unexpected turn. The focus shifts to the introduction of Viagra and its effects on American culture. As the pharmaceutical and health industries take center stage, the relationship between Jamie and Maggie takes a back seat and inevitably falters.
Gyllenhaal and Hathaway have undeniable chemistry together and you find yourself wishing the film centered more on their romance than on the various ethical dilemmas of pharmaceutical sales, however engaging they may be.
In contrast to so many other romantic comedies, the tension in their relationship doesn’t feel forced or contrived. The film attempts to capture the reality of modern relationships and succeeds to an extent. However idealized their lives are, they at least feel real. Their mannerisms and dialogue are accurate and reflect an overall understanding of modern relationships. Nevertheless, the film unfortunately falls victim to chick flick stereotypes on more than one occasion.
This is the main problem with the film as a whole. It defies your expectations, but not in a good way. If you expect a campy romantic comedy, an analysis of the pharmaceutical industry at the end of the 20th century or a more contemporary take on adult relationships, you likely won’t be satisfied. Of course, snippets of all of these elements don’t necessarily coalesce into a complete story either.
A primary focus on one facet of the storyline—either the “love” or the “drugs”—would make this film more gratifying. It’s advertised as a mainstream romantic comedy but never fulfills its promise. (The movie’s trailer is in fact extremely misleading.) There’s certainly no harm in telling a more complex story than those at the theater today, but Love and Other Drugs is more crowded than complex. The potential for a great story is certainly there, which makes the movie’s shortcomings even more frustrating. Despite the fine acting by Gyllenhaal and Hathaway, as well as their supporting cast, the film falls short simply because it tries to do too much.