Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Love & Other Drugs: Avoiding the Harsh Realities

Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway
The TV ads for Love & Other Drugs, the new film from director Edward Zwick (Glory, Defiance), leave one key plot point out of the movie’s hard sell. The female lead, played by Anne Hathaway, has Parkinson’s Disease, the incurable and debilitating illness that eventually destroys a person’s motor symptoms and is most recognizable by the physical tremors that its sufferers display. The late Pope John Paul II had it, as does actor Michael J. Fox, who is the most identifiable Parkinson’s sufferer in the United States. But the makers of Love & Other Drugs would prefer that Parkinson’s not be part of the movie’s pitch for audiences even though it’s an important element of the romantic comedy/drama. That omission from the TV spots is both illuminating and indicative of why the movie itself falls far short of offering something new and original on screen.

When the character of Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal), a hotshot salesman working for the drug company Pfizer, promises to always take care of artist Maggie Murdock (Hathaway) in the TV spot, you could be forgiven for thinking he’s just mouthing the usual platitudes wherein one person declares his love for another in the movies. But once you factor in Parkinson’s, Love & Other Drugs displays a different coloration. If only the movie had followed through on that different tack instead of hinting that it might do so. Love & Other Drugs, however, keeps evading the illness that afflicts Maggie, in favour of throwing out the typical romantic movie fodder: the couple fighting and making up, undergoing embarrassing sexual situations, and giving in to overly emotional outbursts before it’s all neatly wrapped up in the film’s dramatic finale. (Note this isn’t a spoiler; virtually all American movie romances end this way.) Gyllenhaal and Hathaway were also far more interesting together in Brokeback Mountain than they are here.

Based on Jamie Reidy’s book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, Love & Other Drugs is in any case more interested in the salesman than the artist, since it allows him the stronger story arc. The womanizing, callow Jamie eventually discovers that he has feelings after all and, more so, is ready and willing to consider committing to one woman instead of flitting from one conquest to another. It’s a discovery of the soul very similar to that one undergone by George Clooney’s high flier in Jason Reitman’s Up In The Air, only Gyllenhaal’s performance is a rote one compared to Clooney’s incisive, riveting work.

The movie does begin promisingly, as we’re introduced to Jamie and his family, who include James Randall (George Segal), his demanding doctor father, his conciliatory mother Nancy (Jill Clayburgh, in one of her last roles), and his sister Helen (Natalie Gold), also a doctor and a left winger appalled by her brother’s capitalist ethos. Lest you get too used to this trio, they’re all dropped out of the rest of the movie, leaving only one other family member to stick around, namely Jamie’s rich schlub of a brother, Josh, played by Josh Gad in what is easily the worst performance of 2010. That’s saying a lot in a year that has also brought us the cast of child/men in Grown Ups, and Jonah Hill in Get Him to the Greek. Grating and obnoxious barely begin to describe how bad Gad is.

Trying to crack the top echelons of the drug salesmen biz, and guided by a likeable but pushy mentor (Oliver Platt), Jamie soon, cutely, meets Maggie, in a doctor’s office. But Maggie, devastated by the onset of an illness that rarely hits someone in their 20s, has determined to push everyone out of her life and is not about to get romantically involved with anyone, much less a self satisfied jerk like Jamie. Of course, that decision is soon jettisoned so Love & Other Drugs can go its smooth, unruffled and predictable way.

Gyllenhaal and Oliver Platt
Yet, there are signs – more than a few actually – that Love & Other Drugs was at some point intent on being more than a vapid update of Erich Segal’s atrocious Love Story. It’s evident in Hathaway’s terrific and very real performance, never more gripping in a scene where she lashes out in frustration when her fingers won’t obey her commands to paint. It’s also apparent in two scenes that allow some shading to accrue to both the characterization of Platt’s glad-handing salesman and to one of Jamie’s clients, the shallow doctor (Hank Azaria) – in whose office Jamie and Maggie meet – who appears more concerned in scoring with the ladies than treating his patients. A few lines of dialogue suddenly reveal that there is more to these two men than meets the eye. So why weren’t Platt and Azaria, who, not incidentally, are two of the best actors working in American films today, better served throughout the movie? For the same reason, I fear, that Maggie’s’ illness is never allowed to assert itself too prominently in the film. Too much depth and thought just might turn audiences off is the Hollywood view. Likely, movie patrons prefer their romances to be superficial, and cutting any deeper might just keep them away from the box office.

The fact that a third screenwriter Charles Randolph, whose dubious credits include The Life of David Gale and The Interpreter, was brought in to augment the screenplay by Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, proves that dictum, I’d say, especially since Zwick and Herskovitz created the psychologically acute and honest TV series thirtysomething. On the other hand, Zwick, as he showed in the Rambo-like climax of Defiance (his fact-based Holocaust drama about Jewish partisans) can pander with the best of them.

In either case, Love & Other Drugs rarely works up a sweat delving into the harsh realities of life. In fact, it often devolves into cheap sex comedy – Josh Randall, staying with his brother, keeps witnessing Maggie and Jamie au natural – and even exploitation, as when it eavesdrops on a real Parkinson’s group that opposes the medical establishment’s treatment of the disease – and them – and agitates for homeopathic remedies that just might result in a cure for their illness. Like Up In The Air, which used the true, sad tales of people suddenly faced with unemployment for facile sentiment, Love & Other Drugs stoops to pulling on viewer’s heartstrings by shamelessly trafficking in real life tragedies. Just as quickly, though, it leaves the grim but hopeful meeting and returns to cliché land and obvious cinematic tropes. The end result is another ho-hum Hollywood romantic comedy, laced with just a few memorable scenes, tantalizing signs of the sincere, provocative movie it could and should have been.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He is teaching a course on significant contemporary film directors this fall at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute.

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