It’s always tough when a film doesn’t live up to the ad campaign, but what about when it’s nothing like the ads whatsoever? Is it the filmmaker’s fault when a mystery gets advertised as a horror movie? Do we blame the actors for a dry performance if we walked into their drama expecting a comedy? Such is the challenge when talking about Love and Other Drugs.
Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the black sheep of his family. He’s a med-school dropout with few skills (or desires) past being charming and getting women in bed. Which, it turns out, makes him an ideal drug rep for pharmaceutical powerhouse Pfizer. Soon his days are filled with pitching name-brand medications like Xanax in hospital parking lots and doctor’s offices. And getting receptionists in bed.
Jamie’s doing an unofficial “internship” with Doctor Knight (Hank Azaria), a pillar of the local medical community and sales lynchpin, when he meets Maggie (Anne Hathaway). Maggie’s an offbeat artist who happens to have early onset Parkinson’s Disease, a condition that requires heavy medication to control her shakes and tremors. And Maggie, it turns out, is just as eager to avoid a relationship as Jamie is. While the sex is great (and frequent), it gets harder for them to deny that they have some kind of relationship as the months go by. But as Jamie’s star begins to rise with the release of Pfizer’s new sex drug, Viagra, he’s forced to examine what kind of life he could really have with Maggie.
It shouldn’t be too surprising to hear that a movie about a drug pitchman -- loosely inspired by the book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman by Jamie Reidy -- doesn’t do exactly what the sales pitch promised. Plus, while the end results are favorable, there are a few side-effects which aren’t life-threatening, but which may possibly cause some discomfort. Y’see, Love and Other Drugs isn’t really the giddy rom-com it was pushed as during its theatrical release (and continues to be on the DVD case). Nor is it an overbearing drama about a struggling relationship. Instead it walks a much more challenging path, taking the audience from wild infatuation to romance to an actual, ongoing relationship, the sort of story that usually gets dealt with only in indie films.
Now, I know “indie” can be a scary word, but don’t be frightened. This movie handles everything well. There are lots of laughs, many of them provided by Jamie and Maggie, but also from Jamie’s unfiltered brother, Josh (Josh Gad), who’s staying on his couch, and his partner/mentor, Bruce (Oliver Platt). The dreaded L-word doesn’t come up until almost halfway through, and the response it gets from both characters is priceless. There’s sex and nudity for the men and the ladies, but it's never gratuitous to the point of becoming boring, pornographic, or both (so some people learned the lessons of Basic Instinct). If anything, you’ve got to give Anne Hathaway a little credit for not insisting on one of those L-shaped sheets that always shows up in movies.
However, while I wouldn’t call it flawed, it isn’t a perfect film. Without giving too much away, a big part of the problem is that by nature of the choices they’ve made, the filmmakers have painted themselves into a corner. Unless the film veers into some alternate-world fantasy and Jamie makes some phenomenal pharmaceutical discovery in the third act (Holy crap! Having sex with someone on Viagra cures Parkinson’s! Who knew??), there’s no question what kind of life Maggie is headed for. And this means the last act has to veer off into some darker, troublesome territory. Casual sex is fun, but a serious relationship with Maggie means a very different type of commitment. There’s one almost horrific moment at a convention when someone casually lets Jamie know what he’s getting himself into, and having this brutally spelled out marks a big tonal shift. It’s the jarring moment this shifts from that giddy rom-com to an honest love story. It’s natural and it's organic and it works, but there’s no denying it's there.
If I had to make a comparison, Love and Other Drugs is a lot like that classic John Cusack film, Say Anything. You’ll love the beginning, you’ll love the middle, and you’ll love how it all winds up. There’s just a point in there before the ending when you’ll suddenly realize you’re not watching the same movie you sat down with. If it wasn’t for that shift and how it forces itself on you, I’d probably give this film four stars.
It’s odd for a DVD not to have a commentary track these days, but at this point we’ve seen that Love and Other Drugs already went against a bunch of expectations, so why not go a little further? It’s got Spanish and French tracks, but no commentary. The cast and creators do talk a bit in a series of short featurettes that look pieced together from the electronic press kit interviews. It’s mostly quick discussions about what drew each of them to the story and the characters, and a small bit about actors working together. Reidy himself even makes a brief appearance to talk about how he offered sales tips to Gyllenhaal.
There are a few deleted scenes which are really just trimmed and tightened scenes. There was one whole subplot about Bruce having a heart attack that got snipped, but it’s probably for the best since it’s only there to hammer home the evil of big pharma and how it’s become indispensable to the medical industry.
You can even watch the theatrical trailer and comment on how it looks like a completely different movie than the one you just watched.