For the past few years, fans of romantic comedy have had bitter pills to swallow.
From J-Lo's "The Back-Up Plan" to nearly anything with Jennifer Aniston in it, the once-buoyant genre has become limp and boring, hamstrung by an assembly-line mentality toward filmmaking that regards originality as if it were Nancy Pelosi at a Sarah Palin pep rally.
So let's give thanks for, and bestow a big smooch on, the risk-taking ways of "Love & Other Drugs." The passionate dramedy about the combustible relationship between pharmaceutical salesman Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal) and artist/cafe worker Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway) is just the antidote the romantic comedy has desperately needed.
It's sexy, it's funny, it's sexy, it's sad, and, oh my, is it ever sexy.
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It's also imperfect, and at its best whenever director and co-screenwriter Edward Zwick keeps the focus on his flawed lovebirds' tumultuous relationship and shows us how it evolves from dynamite sex to real love.
Zwick has proved time and again he's a master at dealing with characters who are a hot mess, from TV's "thirtysomething" to 1986's "About Last Night" with Rob Lowe and Demi Moore. In fact, elements from the very good "Night" echo throughout "Love & Other Drugs," including the sex-to-love theme and the rampant nudity of its luscious leads.
Yet Zwick's ambition is bigger here. Although you couldn't tell it from the chirpy trailer, the drama boldly tackles the drug industry and touchingly depicts a person — and then a couple — dealing with the early stages of Parkinson's disease. Not that it completely works. Zwick's film occasionally suffers from ADD and scampers off into too many directions for its own good. More often than not, though, he mixes the comedy with the drama and the emotion effectively. Most certainly his two leads do.
Zwick, along with co-screenwriters Charles Randolph and Marshall Herskovtiz, have loosely adapted Jamie Reidy's tell-all book "Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman," retaining the stinging commentary on the pharmaceutical business and expanding on it by creating the character of Maggie.
It's a juicy part for Hathaway, who's luminous and touchy as an acerbic woman whose affliction has made her emotionally wall out everyone around her. The fiery Maggie meets a formidable match in Jamie, a bedroom-eyed charmer who can woo anyone into a tumble. But it's Maggie, not Jamie, who initiates the canoodling after they meet in a doctor's office.
Like Hathaway, Gyllenhaal is a perfect fit for his part. His Jamie might exude confidence and the promise of great sex, but underneath the tailored suit and slicked-back hair lies a decent guy who doesn't have a clue about who he is. Gyllenhaal is a natural at playing this carefree boy-man, his smile always in full bloom, masking the fears that hide inside.
Interspersed in this romance, Zwick skewers the pharmaceutical industry, capturing the outlandishness of a Vegas-style boot camp for new sales recruits, while showing us the addictive and highly sexual nature of being part of the biz.
On the downside, the writers overexert themselves trying to reveal so many aspects of Big Pharm, by creating secondary characters such as Hank Azaria's unscrupulous doc who takes freebies in exchange for sexual hookups, and Gabriel Macht as Jamie's Prozac-touting nemesis. Both come off like props, and make you aware that the movie's a bit of a soapbox.
But ultimately it's the chemistry — that old-fashioned key ingredient in any successful love story — that fires up "Love & Other Drugs" and reduces minor quibbles to ash. As a couple, Gyllenhaal and Hathaway have enough electricity to light up San Francisco for a year.