Friday, December 3, 2010

Love and Lots of Sex

I'm not sure which surprised me more: Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway) exposing her boob less than five minutes after we meet her character in a doctor's office, or that Love & Other Drugs by it's finale had became one of my favorite films of the year. The romantic comedy by director Edward Zwick had drawn me in with a strong trailer and charismatic leads, and with most of the films I REALLY wanted to see unavailable to me or forthcoming, I decided to dedicate my time and money to this film, which if nothing else looked interesting and original.

Chinese food in bed is step #22 in Dating for Wimps
Loosely based on the book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman by Huffington Post blogger Jamie Reidy, Love takes place in the late 1990's and introduces to us salesman Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal), a college dropout working as a clerk at a small-time electronics store, where he has used his charm - especially with the ladies - to be the best salesman at the store. Fired shortly after the film's opening for engaging in sexual conquest with one of his fellow employees, Jamie gets help from his millionaire brother (Josh Gad) and is hired as a salesman for Pfizer, the commercial drug giant. Tasked with selling Zoloft and Zithromax in the Ohio River Valley, Jamie happens to meet Maggie, a free spirit who suffers from stage one Parkinson's Disease. She's the first woman who doesn't immediately fall for Jamie's charms, and what begins as a raunchy one night stand eventually changes for both of them, as both begin to experience love for the first time.

Quick! It's the 80's and you're Tom Cruise! Go!
Love & Other Drugs is only the second romantic comedy directed by Zwick, who's only other title from that genre is 1986's About Last Night. While his other efforts in the meantime have been more serious dramas such as Courage Under Fire, The Last Samurai, and Blood Diamond, the pacing in this film shows that he hasn't lost his touch in that area. The film flows at a good pace and never feels forced, allowing the story to be told to us at a comfortable level and never dropping things upon our heads that we wouldn't understand. As director and as one of the film's screenwriters, Zwick takes something that might not appeal to most audiences - mainly the operations of American pharmaceutical corporations - and manages to wrap a story around it that we can instantly connect with on an almost personal level. Not only that, but the film doesn't suffer from being aimed at teens or a younger audience. It's an adult romance, never overly smarmy or unbelievable in it's portrayal of a mature adult relationship.

Trying to avoid another "Brokeback" moment
Zwick is helped immensely by his leading actors. Hathaway is simply amazing, her performance subtle and emotional, a character who struggles to be independent even with the knowledge that a disease with no cure will slowly take he life and self-reliance away from her. It's easy to see why Jamie falls so easily for her, and why he would do anything for her. Don't mistake her for a damsel in distress however; she doesn't like the idea of being tied down, and falls in love on her own terms, not his. We knew Hathaway would be good, but Gyllenhaal is the surprise here. Though he tried before to cultivate a career of playing disturbed characters (Donnie Darko, Jarhead) or performing in serious drama (Brokeback Mountain, Zodiac), it was his charming role in the otherwise-repulsive Prince of Persia that I began to suspect his talents as a romantic leading man. The result is one of the best performances I've seen from him, that of the aimless guy who went for so many years simply getting by, only now learning what's important to him and how to care. The two actors have amazing chemistry, and I don't just mean in the bedroom. Every conversation we're witness to is an intellectual treat, as they all make us feel right there in the scene, intertwined in the elegance of speech and the occasional rampaging emotion. Both are so believable that you'd think the two actors were the ones in love, not just the characters.

If Anne Hathaway suddenly strips in your foyer, make sure you're the only one home
It's a shame the secondary characters aren't as enticing as the leads, but that might be asking too much. That isn't to say that the supporting cast is bad, quite the opposite in fact, simply that Hathaway and Gyllenhaal raise the bar far higher than any of the others can reach. Oliver Platt plays Jamie's veteran partner and mentor, training him in the hard art of the sell while aspiring to get the promotion to Chicago so he can be with his family again. For this, Platt puts on his usual scene chewing performance, the same one we've been privy to since forever. Gabriel Macht plays a drug representative from a rival firm with a romantic history with Maggie. There's really not much to say about him, as he loses precious screen time long before the final credits. He's solid when given the chance however. Josh Gad plays Jamie's brother, but his role is somewhat unrealistic and obviously plugged in as a cheap comedic role and a link to Jamie's family history. He works when he's used, and thankfully in small doses, but the idea that Jamie's millionaire brother ends up sleeping on his poorer sibling's couch for about two-thirds of the film does seem a bit unlikely, even if it is because Jamie is his big brother. The best of the group however might be Hank Azaria, who plays the top general practitioner in the region, Dr. Knight. Though he at first comes off as simply an asshole, Knight eventually reveals to us a side disenfranchised with the state of the medical industry, barred by red tape and constantly scrutinized by lawyers waiting for that one big mistake. It's by far the deepest character I've seen from Azaria, whose mostly comedic roles have been doubtlessly funny if a bit shallow.
Unhappy Anne makes us ALL sad...
There is a bit in the middle where we're reminded that the film has basis in real life. I had been wondering why the film used the real names of drug companies and drugs when the turning point of the film turned out to be the company's release of the sex drug Viagra. Suddenly stuff starts happening, and the impact of Viagra is obvious to anybody living today; it was the wonder drug that completely changed the industry, and to blanket that with a fake name would have reeked as obvious to anybody watching. Thankfully having this drug and it's parent company featured by name doesn't hurt the film in the slightest. Though it is portrayed that working in the drug industry is lucrative and the creation of Viagra is treated for the cultural event that it was, the film stops short of overly praising the company for being all-over wonderful. It also doesn't condemn the drug industry for its role in the highly profitable medical institution and the problems inherent there. Those things, the industry and the company and the product, simply are what they are. They don't detract from the romantic story attempting to be told, and that works out just fine.

"So... what do you want to do now?"

In the end, it really falls to the lead characters to make us feel like we're witnessing something different. Hathaway and Gyllenhaal make that happen in spades, and they are helped by a script that feels current, is funny as hell at times and emotionally gripping at others. Kudos to Zwick for successfully getting the best he could out this story, which could have simply taken the easy route and settled for middle of the road fare. Though it may alienate some audiences with its honest and intimate look at Parkinson's, I thought this was a beautiful film that had me constantly tearing up near the end and when the film came to a close, I wanted more, and in a good way. I never thought I'd do this, but I have to: Love & Other Drugs is my new #6 for the year. A romantic comedy that DOESN'T feature extensive video game references making it so high?

I must be maturing in my old age.

"Maybe next time we'll try in the bed."

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