Love and Other Drugs
Directed by Edward Zwick
Starring: Anne Hathaway,
Jake Gyllenhaal
Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, pervasive language and some drug material
1 hr. 53 min.

In Hollywood’s most popular romance subgenre, the romantic comedy, there’s a certain reassuring formula. It begins with The Gimmick: the goofy premise that heaves an unlikely couple into a whirlwind fling. Then The Hitch: the frustratingly obvious slip-up that tars the lead (usually the male) halfway through. Finally, The Hitch is overwhelmed by The Speech: a climactic display of affection that wins over the aggrieved, usually the female, with unabashed sentimentality.

Even though we’re tired of this formula, we’ve become predisposed to it. Without the Jerry Maguire speech or The Switch’s gimmick or the laughable hitch in Hitch, there’d be little structure to anchor the comedy and romantic arc of the characters. This formula paves the way for a romantic comedy to be just that. Without it, there’d be only disjointed emotions and messy, unresolved loose ends.

This is why the romantic dramedy is such a tricky proposition. It tries to subvert that formula with just a little more heart tugging. And more often then not, this fails. Hence, the frustrating nature of Love and Other Drugs.

Known for epics The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond, director Ed Zwick stubbornly tried to forgo convention in his foray into the syrupy genre. As a result, Love veers from Catch Me If You Can whimsy to maudlin A Walk to Remember sappiness.

Loosely based on the memoir Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, the film introduces suave, self-described “shithead” Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal), who bounces between jobs and women with ease. With a little help from his pudgy, geeky younger brother (an amusing Josh Gad playing the “Jonah Hill” role), Jamie parlays his silky way with words into a job as a traveling pharmaceutical rep with drug giant Pfizer.

As he shills Zoloft to mostly uninterested doctors, he inevitably winds up meeting Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), an effortlessly attractive, yet world-weary, late 20-something artist on a myriad of prescriptions. Setting up a rom-com scenario, the two immediately hit it off and decide to keep their relationship purely sexual. But sure enough, the salesman falls for the vulnerable Maggie, and they eventually put a label on their budding romance.

At this point, the tale of a pharmaceutical salesman becomes a backdrop to the crux of the plot: Maggie is afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. And Jamie, a rising star in the company, is faced with the dilemma of whether he should stay with Maggie or abandon her for the faceless beautiful women he’s sure to meet while peddling the newly introduced drug sensation; Viagra.

Having escaped convention for the first two-thirds of the film, suddenly the production lurches back to the tracks and speeds full-tilt toward The Hitch and, yes, The Speech. And by the time Gyllenhaal frantically weaves his Porsche through traffic in an attempt to catch up with Maggie’s Greyhound bus, the audience knows what’s coming next: Jake pouring his heart out in order to win back her affections.

Yet, oddly enough, even midway through Gyllenhaal’s speech, it’s difficult to piece together what Hathaway’s reaction will be. Does she take the slick salesman back, even if she fears he’ll eventually leave her when her health deteriorates? Is Gyllenhaal serious in his overtures, or is he simply trying to validate himself after living a mostly self-centered life until meeting Maggie?

There’s plenty of unexplored territory in Love and Other Drugs. And few of these lingering questions are satisfactorily answered. Although the attempt was admirable, maybe Zwick should have just stuck to the formula instead.   

erik@vcreporter.com