November 25, 2010

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Love and Other Drugs (R)
A good-time-Charlie drug salesman and an acerbic artist with a degenerative disease try to craft a relationship in Love and Other Drugs, a movie that hearkens back to the late 1990s and the early days of Viagra.

We get 1990s music, we get clips of jokes about Bob Dole, we get flannel about seven years after it was cool — 1990s nostalgia, people, that’s what’s happening here. For those of us who still have, like, sweatshirts in regular rotation from the late 1990s there is something deeply disturbing about hearing a Spin Doctors song played as though it were dug out of a time capsule.

Thusly set ill at ease, we meet Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal), a professional ladies’ man who has not yet found a career. When he gets fired from a stereo store (for spending too much time in the stock room with the owner’s wife), his brother Josh (Josh Gad), newly rich from taking his dot-com public, hooks him up with a job as a drug salesman for Pfizer. Jamie, a college dropout in a family full of doctors, does not seem at first like a cracker-jack salesman, but he is pretty good at getting assorted women — his Pfizer trainer, doctor’s office assistants — to fall in crush with him. This plus a “consulting fee” check to Dr. Stan Knight (Hank Azaria) gets him some hangout time in the doctor’s office trying to sell Zoloft and facilitates the meet-cute with Maggie (Anne Hathaway), a woman suffering from the early stages of Parkinson’s disease at the age of 26. Thinking he’s an intern, Maggie flashes some boobage at him during the examination. When in the parking lot she figures out he’s a drug rep, she hits him with her purse and, as grade school teaches us, that particular brand of flirt-violence leads to a date, which leads to sex on the floor of someone’s kitchen.

Which leads not to a relationship, at least not at first. Jamie is all googley-eyed and goofy over Maggie but she’s wary about making their thing more than just casual. She fears her illness will eventually scare him away and doesn’t want to deal with the pain. Jamie, naturally, doesn’t care at all about that — until their thing does become a relationship and the future does start to matter.

Simultaneously, Jamie, who has been selling Zoloft and an antibiotic with his boss Bruce (Oliver Platt), gets the chance to sell Viagra and starts to clean up. Doctors who had previously walked in the other direction when he appeared are waiting to slap him on the back and be his buddy. His star is on the rise — will Maggie be able to be a part of all the Viagra-facilitated fun?

A few months back I mentioned that the Drew Barrymore movie Going the Distance, with its liberal use of the f-word and its wacky raunchy comedy, would likely be topped in rated-R-ness by a future movie looking to distinguish itself from other syrupy, cutesy rom-coms. Love and Other Drugs appears to be that escalation. I see your F-words and I raise you Anne Hathaway’s boobies, this movie says. For, indeed, boob we do get, along with “serious drama” — because I’m pretty sure Hathaway really wants to chart her course into Serious Thespian territory and to do that you can’t just go around showing off the girls for no reason. You’ve got to pair your partial frontal nudity with some stuff about dealing with the emotions of having a disease that promises a difficult future. (And she does that, though this is no Rachel Getting Married so we get all her alterna-girl-hiding-a-delicate-heart stuff in a rather cursory way.) This “adultness” is fine, it feels a bit stilted but not distractingly so. But, as I predicted with Going the Distance, just adding on some nudity and swear words doesn’t push this rather standard romance into new territory.

This movie starts off like a The Devil Wears Prada variation with Gyllenhaal in the role of the newbie learning the ropes of a competitive industry. And that part of the movie is by far the most interesting and energetic. Gyllenhaal’s Jamie is not an immediate success — he isn’t a born salesman, he’s a born ladies’ man. His attempts at figuring out how to turn that quality into something that earns him money are the movie’s most lively and entertaining scenes and Gyllenhaal himself seems to be having the most fun. His character, who easily could have come off as clichéd (jerk with a heart), is interesting — Up in the Air’s Ryan Bingham in his youth. As we descend into the “romantic” portion of this romantic comedy (probably more a “romantic dramady” for its more serious tone in the movie’s second half), the movie loses its life-of-a-salesman sparkle. Gyllenhaal and Hathaway don’t blow you over with their chemistry but they don’t repel each other either. The relationship-heavy second half of the movie just feels tepid and a bit of a letdown after the fun the movie has with its snaky salespeople and sassy Hathaway during the beginning. C

Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, pervasive language and some drug material. Directed by Edward Zwick and written by Charles Randolph, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (from the book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman), Love and Other Drugs is an hour and 53 minutes long and is distributed by 20th Century Fox Distribution. It opens in wide release on Wednesday, Nov. 24.

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