3 January 2011

At the Cinema: Love and Other Drugs

Love and Other Drugs (Edward Zwick/2010) USA/112mins. *½

Jake Gyllenhaal likes to put his hand on his own face...

If you squeeze the infamously corny Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw tearjerker Love Story through the eye of an Up in the Air-shaped needle, you get close to what Edward Zwick is attempting to do with his latest film. But sobbing and cynicism feel like strange bed mates here; genre confusion reigns supreme. And not in a good way. Jake Gyllenhaal is Jamie, a flashy, flirty pharmaceutical rep, and Anne Hathaway is Maggie, a free-spirited waitress; they fall in love, and then in dire straits – her early-onset Parkinson’s is the true-love-questioning stone around both their necks, but neither initially sees that it needn't be. It’s set in 1996, as per the source material (Jamie Reidy’s book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman), but outside of the surrounding yet ultimately dispensable pharma-cute-ical subplot it doesn’t entirely ground itself in its period: cool glasses, kooky apartments, fast sports cars and a Friends-like coffee shop do not the ‘90s arouse. Its detailing of selfish lifestyles under scrutiny and odd, cheesy pop songs harks back more to the 1980s. It doesn’t just fudge its blend of ill-fitting genres – its entire tone is on the clunky side.

... Jake Gyllenhaal likes to put his hand on his co-stars' faces

The central story requires Gyllenhaal’s motivational career grabbing to be undercut by his feelings for sick Hathaway. It's a path it never veers from. But it doesn’t fully work when sandwiched between moments of strained comic banter and sprinkling of unfunny gags. It could’ve been integrated a whole lot better. But the script is content to be a precisely-orchestrated series of both inspirational and woe-filled platitudes with the sole determination to ‘uplift’ above all else. Everyone involved would’ve looked a whole lot more confident had the filmmakers actually picked a direction to go in. After all, what’s wrong with an honest, decent weepie? Or, on the flipside, what’s wrong with doing a There’s Something About Maggie with the material? One or the other: love, or the comedy drug? No one here is bold enough for a true genre mash-up. And why didn’t they draft in Charlie Kaufman, or a knowing but cheap knock-off, to doctor the script?

Anne Hathaway is wondering why Gyllenhaal doesn't have his hand on her face.

Hathaway, in the better role by a slim margin, is too talented not to perform her part without some display of gutsiness. Based on her faultlessly word-perfect and unwavering dialogue delivery, I’d say she’s a budding Julia Roberts if ever I saw one; she’ll get her Erin Brockovich one day. Gyllenhaal is all suited charm-'n'-smarm but, although he knows when to make best use of his hangdog eyes, he flounders and looks awkward in the moments of physical comedy. And I couldn’t help feel he was miscast – the role called for someone like Seann William Scott. (If there’s ever an actor I’d like to see attempt a genre turn-around...) In a screen romance like this truthful performances are essential. Ideally, they need to be faultless for it to fly. Love and Other Drugs is too concerned with the smart-alec and showy side of things to come close to being anywhere near properly affecting: here, a ‘pulling a bus over for an impromptu declaration of love’ scene feels like a cynically rote attempt at winsomeness; faux-emotive music is queued up like clockwork to wring from an audience tears that it doesn’t entirely earn. Overt knowingness and a lazy attitude to narrative can bring a film down – and down hard. Zwick and co. should try cleaning up their filmmaking act.

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