“Love and Other Drugs,” the new star-driven romance from director Ed Zwick, isn’t exactly unwelcome. The leads, Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal, are charming and light as they meet and fall for each other, and they also dig deep — or, rather, deeper than the average rom-com — when romantic uncertainty and Hathaway’s Parkinson’s disease drag the long shadows of sadness and mortality into the sunshine of their love. The supporting cast — including Hank Azaria and Oliver Platt — give their little side bits everything they have. It’s also nice to see Zwick stepping away from his recent string of leaden, well-intentioned films (“Blood Diamond,” “Defiance”) that tried to be both entertaining and important and yet somehow wound up being neither.
The only thing to dislike about “Love and Other Drugs” is how clearly, and desperately, it wants to be liked. And that’s frankly a pity, because there’s something sincere and plainspoken at the heart of the film, and you can sense it shooting for the same kind of modern-Zen territory as “Jerry Maguire.” What does it mean to be good? What does it mean to be successful? What does it mean to love? These aren’t bad questions for a movie to want to answer, and you can feel the movie sharpen its pencils and get out its paper and begin tackle those big issues … only to have those efforts distracted and diluted by the subplots, secondary characters and sideways digressions of the script.
Gyllenhaal’s Jamie, charming and callow and jobless in the wintry wilds of Ohio in 1996, gets a job as a pharmaceuticals rep for Pfizer. While on his pleading, cajoling rounds he sits in on a local MD’s examination of Hathaway’s bohemian beauty Maggie. (We know Maggie is a bohemian because we see her making wacky art, wearing paint-spattered overalls, smoking weed, walking about barefoot and listening to Liz Phair. Not all at once, mind you; that would be too obvious.)
And just as Jamie gets lucky at love, he gets even luckier at work, as Pfizer releases — or, more appropriately, unleashes — its new erectile dysfunction drug, Viagra. Jamie is suddenly the Candyman, bestowing blue pills and firmer fortunes upon all in his gaze. Maggie is also dealing with her Parkinson’s, a degenerative disease harder — and less immediately profitable — for the American medical-industrial establishment to take on.
There has been Oscar buzz for Hathaway’s work as Maggie, as the character is doomed, sassy and more than willing to take her clothes off. (A cynic will suggest that the film’s nudity is deliberately weighed as a provocative awards-worthy bit of “bravery,” but it’s also nice to see a film about sex and love that doesn’t rely on artfully shy camera angles and the traditional L-shaped sheet configuration where the gentleman in a set of lovers is covered waist-down by the linens and the lady is mysteriously covered, by the same sheet, starting somewhere around the collarbone.) But while Hathaway’s not exactly delivering Oscar-caliber work here, she is at the very least good, and occasionally excellent. Gyllenhaal’s charm and enthusiasm help a lot, especially in the early, breezy scenes before the whole film puts on a dour, sour expression of gloom and suffering for its own sake and then veers off into wacky slapstick in the final act before the big-feelings finish.
The relationship material here is good — frank and blunt and well-stated — but it is so good I found myself watching a climactic scene with Gyllenhaal and Hathaway talking in a parking lot and sincerely wishing they could be in a relationship film that didn’t have the convenient, cliché motor of tragic illness driving it. Josh Gad comes in as Gyllenhaal’s comedy-relief nerd brother, but his scenes are, for lack of a better word, excruciating — low jokes that burn up screen time that could be used for something, anything else.
But there are laughs here, and there are more than a few sincere and insightful discussions of love and its consequences. Then, though, the film will wind up going on some lengthy tangent away from all that and make you wish that Zwick and his stars could be telling one story instead of the five, or six, they have going on. “Love and Other Drugs” is intended as the cinematic equivalent of a pill-pusher’s feel-good prescription — easy to swallow, full of happy feelings and designed to fill you with a warm glow that ideally drowns out the unintended side effects. If everyone involved had thought less like a pharmaceuticals pitchman and more like a surgeon — calmly and swiftly cutting away dead tissue in the name of strength and health — then the movie would feel less like a frustrating near-miss and more like the exceptional film it’s trying too hard to be.