Love and Other Drugs, 2010.
Directed by Edward Zwick.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Katheryn Winnick, Hank Azaria and Oliver Platt.
Flirtatious Viagra salesman Jamie (Gyllenhaal) meets his match when he is confronted by the alluring free spirit Maggie (Hathaway), who has a secret that will test their love to its limits.
Being ill really sucks. I type between painful bursts of a horrendous cough. Being in love can also suck, despite the indescribable, life-affirming highs. As a film driven by the inevitable heartache that ensues when love and illness collide, Love and Other Drugs never really properly captures the essence of either theme. Instead it becomes bogged down with so many half-formed ideas that many reviews are saying its script should never have been realised at all. And yet something about it divides the critics.
For a romantic comedy the hype surrounding the film’s release has been considerable. Expectations were raised that this was going to be a serious, grown up story of relationships, at once funny and moving. Edward Zwick, who has made his directorial name in the past few years with serious epics like The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond and Defiance, all three critically acclaimed, was sure to add emotional weight and spot-on performances to a tired genre. A master story teller like Zwick, used to feeding off inspiring and complicated issues like Africa and the Holocaust, would be applying his expertise to the more contemporary, everyday problems of healthcare, drugs companies and love. At the very least Anne Hathaway appeared constantly naked in the trailer. A recipe for success in early 2011 it seemed.
Following the snow induced Christmas period slump at the box office, Love and Other Drugs has certainly been a commercial hit, luring Brits back to cinemas for the New Year. The film was marketed superbly well. However it has not been the revitalisation of the genre many critics had hoped for. It’s almost as if Zwick couldn’t decide what film he was making. In the past his successful films have had a narrow focus, albeit with epic execution, on the diamond industry, tough Holocaust survivors or Samurais. Here he could have simply made a rom-com to depart from the grim seriousness of his previous features.
Instead this could be an early crack at a 1990s period piece, an unflinching look at the morality of the US health system, a study of a Parkinson’s sufferer, the story of a classic charming young American come-good, a heart wrenching, sex filled romance or the tale of Viagra’s remarkable rise (get it?). Cramming all this in via a series of abrupt swerves in direction in the plot means that the film never explores one of these themes brilliantly, merely touching on them all briefly. And when dealing with issues like long term illness this is negligent and unforgivable, as well as unsatisfying and damaging to the narrative. To top it all off Anne Hathaway is naked much less than she appears to be in the trailer.
Perhaps the best way to interpret the blizzard of themes in Love and Other Drugs is with snapshots from the blizzard of mixed responses to the film in the press. The film’s rating of 48% on Rotten Tomatoes could be down to it falling short of those raised expectations, as opposed to it being completely terrible. Having said this there are some truly scathing reviews, perhaps the most brutal from Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian condemning the whole film as a promotional exercise for pharmaceutical companies. Other bad write-ups come from The Telegraph, where the reviewer shares my shock at the lack of Hathaway flesh on show (surely a case of false advertising?), Film4 and The Daily Mail, which both conclude the screenplay is a “mess” holding the film back from greatness. Even the positive reviews, from the likes of Empire and Sky Movies, have qualifications and things they disliked that hold the film back from being better. And I think my verdict will join this camp.
I certainly think Bradshaw’s verdict in The Guardian is unfair. Love and Other Drugs has its (numerous) flaws but at no point did it seem to be putting forward an unblemished view of the twisted pharmaceuticals industry in America. It certainly didn’t show its worst aspects either but that doesn’t mean at times the story is not working hard to point out the immorality of the system, whilst still being entertaining. Josh Gad, playing Jake Gyllenhaal’s character’s brother, whilst being irritating at times as The Telegraph points out, also has some hilarious lines. After Gyllenhaal’s usually suave, unfeeling womanising character tells Hathaway’s Maggie “I like hearing the sound of your voice” over the phone, Gad queries whether his brother has been “molested by a care bear”.
A while ago I would have been completely ignorant of the two key themes at the heart of this film: love and chronic illness. However now I can’t believe my luck to find myself in a relationship with an amazing girl I am falling further and further for each day. And I am dependent on a fortnightly dose of drugs to keep my malfunctioning body in check. So it is frustrating to see this film fail to tackle its two key themes too often. The most revealing word in the title of Love and Other Drugs is “other”. The plot gets sidetracked so often this film loses its way on the path to critical acclaim. But, much like when you love someone, the imperfections don’t seem to matter that much. Something about Love and Other Drugs is irresistibly enjoyable. Much of this is down to the chemistry between the leads, who give charismatic performances even if they’re clearly not Oscar worthy knockouts. Also I may have been giddy and intoxicated by the company of my girlfriend. Whether it’s a passable date-movie or a bold but inadequate attempt at breathing life into its genre, Love and Other Drugs is a cinema experience riddled with faults, but one many will find fun, enjoyable and despite its lack of depth, thought provoking.
Liam Trim (follow me on Twitter)
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