Two young actors expose themselves for art
by Jason Blair
LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS: Directed by Edward Zwick. Written by Zwick, Charles Randolph and Marshall Herskovitz, based on Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman. Cinematography, Steven Fierberg. Music, James Newton Howard. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Oliver Platt and Hank Azaria. 20th Century Fox, 2010. R. 113 minutes.
High on the list of what men want — along with father’s approval and the occasional proximity to fire — is the chance to meet someone like Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), who craves sex but finds vulnerability repulsive. Whip-smart, noncommittal and much more comfortable naked than clothed, Maggie is every man’s fantasy, a gorgeous but tormented artist passing the days in her bohemian loft. But Maggie’s toughness masks the pain of incurable disease, a situation that should complicate a romantic comedy like Love and Other Drugs. Instead, in a strange spin on Maggie’s affliction, the film itself eventually succumbs to it.
It’s little surprise that Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhal), a pharmaceutical rep for Pfizer, would be attracted to someone like Maggie. When the film opens, in the relatively uncomplicated era of 1996, Jamie is an electronics salesman with a serious hard-on for the ladies — a part Don Cheadle perfected in Boogie Nights — so it’s meant to be funny that, a few years later, Jamie is hawking Viagra samples to physicians. One of those physicians, a diminished and overworked Dr. Knight (Hank Azaria), allows Jamie to shadow him during office hours, which is how Jamie gets introduced to Maggie’s naked breast. It’s still early in Love and Other Drugs at this point, and the brief nudity has a bracing and relatively mature quality in that nobody feels cheap and exploited. But of course, Maggie is being exploited, which gives Jamie a chance, once he’s found out by Maggie, to apologize and commence falling in love. Talk about knowing how to pick them: What Maggie wants is a little sex to pass the time.
To its credit, Love and Other Drugs doesn’t withhold Maggie’s condition. Hiding her malady would have cheapened it. But so little else is contained in Maggie’s life that there’s nothing to arouse much pathos for her. She expresses her suffering by denying herself love and frequently engaging in bouts of self-pity, but her pain is left unexplored. That Maggie generates any sympathy at all is due to Hathaway, who occasionally escapes the tiny corner the screenwriters have provided her, particularly when she flashes from vulnerable to distant. But ultimately the filmmakers don’t know what to do with her, or rather, her condition. She’s a framework; she’s all scaffolding and no building. She has no friends or family to speak of, nor does she often leave her fortress of solitude. Even when she’s momentarily nice, it’s an early warning signal of trouble, like the first cough of a dying person. You just know that her one-dimensionality is going to push Jamie — and the audience — away.
As a sex comedy, Love and Other Drugs can be fearless, frequently showing the actors in various stages of undress. A long chain of Very Outstanding Orgasms ensue, which lull you into thinking there’s intimacy ahead. But it never arrives. Director Edward Zwick (Glory, but also Legends of the Fall) settles for mere comfort, and forced comfort at that — do people really make phone calls from bathtubs, or lie on their backs on countertops? — which makes Love and Other Drugs a merely average production in need of several enhancements. If only they made a little blue pill for the movies.