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Love & Other Drugs is half eager romantic comedy, half earnest drama. And neither of them quite work. Though nuggets of the story are interesting—young woman with early-onset Parkinson’s wants sex and nothing more from a playboy who falls for her—its execution is too clichéd and, as a result, too taxing for the good stuff to transcend the tropes.
Director-co-writer Edward Zwick’s adaptation of the memoir Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman opens in 1996 with a smooth electronics hawker named Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) getting fired for boning his boss’ girlfriend. Stuck without a trade while his portly, comic-relief younger brother, Josh (Josh Gad), gets rich from the Internet bubble, Jamie eventually tries pharmaceutical sales. Of course, he’s initially terrible at it. Of course, he quickly gets better. So good, in fact, that he sweet-talks a doctor (Hank Azaria) into letting him shadow him for a day so he can more aggressively push his product, Zoloft.
This never-in-a-million-years set-up leads to a meeting with Maggie (Anne Hathaway), who sees the doctor for an emergency refill of her Parkinson’s medication when her apartment is burglarized—and whips out her boob so he can also take a look at a weird mark she’s found. Maggie figures out that Jamie’s a sham and goes off on him for the first of a seemingly endless number of times. You see, Maggie’s tough and independent, and the only way to show this is to have her deliver huge, smartass monologues that no other human being would be able to rattle off without lots of rehearsal. It takes Jamie about five seconds to fall in love, even if at first he claims to be ecstatic about the fact that Maggie’s just interested in casual sex.
Add moon eyes to wackiness (Maggie unwittingly getting naked in front of Josh, the introduction of Viagra set to “Heaven Is a Place on Earth”) and you’ve got another tired rom-com, albeit one with pretty steamy and frequent sex. (Princess Diaries fans, get ready to see your sweet royal bare all.) The moment the sheen wears off the relationship, however, is stellar: Though Maggie’s first-stage disease is mostly under control, she has a bad day that’s made worse when she runs out of medication. She gets drunk, pushes Jamie away, falls to her knees, and sobs when her shaking hands drop a glass. It’s more startling than melodramatic, and after an overdose of Maggie’s I-am-a-rock attitude, a welcome glimpse of vulnerability.
A meeting in which Parkinson’s patients much worse off than Maggie share their stories is similarly affecting, but Zwick isn’t content with middle-of-the-road emotion. There have to be sweeping gestures and big speeches, now courtesy of Jamie. Still, his mushiness toward the end of the film trumps Maggie’s ballsiness at the beginning, if only because her situation is so sympathetic.
The best part of Love & Other Drugs is the sizzling chemistry of Gyllenhaal and Hathaway, who played a married couple in Brokeback Mountain and are electric here whether they’re fighting or falling in love. If only grandstanding weren’t so central to their relationship.