There are a number of things to like about Edward Zwick’s “Love and Other Drugs,” so it seems churlish to quibble about the problems.
But those foibles are what keep Zwick’s nervy blend of romantic comedy and drama from being a really good movie, instead of merely a good date destination. The problems aren’t terminal, but they are persistent.
Zwick’s film, which he and cowriter Marshall Herskovitz adapted with Charles Randolph from James Reidy’s book, starts funny, gets funnier, then makes a turn to the serious. The laughs don’t stop entirely, but the tone and the focus have changed in ways that deepen and strengthen the film. Yet Zwick’s film can’t quite make the leap to something even deeper – or funnier, for that matter.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Randall, the eldest son and black sheep of an over-achieving Chicago family. Dad (George Segal) is a prominent medical school professor and doctor; his sister is a doctor. His brother is a multi-millionaire after inventing medical-record software (this is the early 1990s) and then selling his company. Mom is, well, Jill Clayburgh.
Jamie, however, has used his charm and his smile to chase women and take jobs that his parents obviously feel are beneath him. We first see him at a Best Buy-like electronics chain, where he’s working when the film opens and from which he is fired by the end of the opening credits.
So Jamie goes to work for Pfizer, selling pharmaceuticals to doctors in Ohio, working for a more senior rep named Bruce (Oliver Platt). Selling Zithromax isn’t a problem – but getting their drug, Zoloft, to compete with Prozac is more of a challenge.
The key, Bruce tells him, is getting one particularly popular general practitioner, Dr. Stan Knight (Hank Azaria), to make the switch from prescribing Prozac. So Jamie ingratiates himself with Dr. Knight – but there’s only so much he can do.
Still, while hanging with the good doctor, he meets a particularly attractive patient, Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway) and, after a rough start, winds up jumping into bed with her. Indeed, sex with Maggie becomes a regular thing – and Jamie is drawn to her because she’s quick-witted, mouthy, willing to call Jamie on his games – and she is as standoffish about commitment as he is.
She also has Parkinson’s disease.
And that’s the crux of this film. Oh, Zwick eventually gets around to the introduction of Viagra and the subsequent boom that transforms Pfizer and turns Jamie into a superstar salesman. But really, “Love and Other Drugs” is about Jamie’s growing feelings for Maggie, who consistently rejects a relationship because she doesn’t want to have to depend on someone else.
That’s tricky territory. It’s one thing to build a romantic drama around someone with a terminal illness (“Love Story,” anyone?); it’s another to tackle the increasing demands of being involved with someone with a degenerative disease. That gets into issues of commitment far beyond simply the question of monogamy.
Zwick’s film gets into that, but not deeply enough and with a bit too much stiff-upper-lip. The final showdown between Jamie and Maggie feels showy and acted, with Zwick’s camera alternating between increasingly close one-shots of the two principals. While, yes, it’s a scene about two people coming to terms with their relationship, you get the impression that he’s being this even-handed because he can’t decide whose scene it is. Or whose movie it is.
There are other bothersome issues, starting with the writing. While the give-and-take between Maggie and Jamie is often tartly funny, more often it works because the people delivering it are giving it a little added zip. But even that doesn’t work all the time: Josh Gad, the pudgy actor who plays Jamie’s rich but romantically hapless brother, has comic skills, but even he can’t enrich weak writing that dwells on his voyeuristic, masturbatory tendencies.
Also: What are Segal and the late Clayburgh doing in this film? They show up in an initial scene as Jamie’s demanding parents, then disappear, never to be seen again. It’s a little like the almost criminal underuse of Brian Dennehy in Paul Haggis’ “The Next Three Days.”
“Love and Other Drugs” has a sexy vitality and a vein of something deeper and darker beneath its bubbly comic surface. Still, this is a date movie – and a decent one of the breed – but not a film for the ages. It works as far as it goes. It just never dares to go far enough.