Sunday, December 5, 2010

Muddled "Love and Other Drugs"

There is a great popular film somewhere that takes a satiric look at the complex issue of health care, how the aggressive and lucrative pharmaceutical industry is holding health care hostage, and how a self-centered industry professional falls in love with a woman whose suffering is at odds with his success.

Unfortunately, "Love and Other Drugs" is not that film.  To be sure, it introduces these elements, but treats them in the most superficial way, leaving a viewer confused about the film's intent, emphasis and tone.

What is this, exactly?  A love story between two troubled characters? An examination of how the medical field is stymied by big pharma? Perhaps a slapstick comedy, complete with lame sex jokes, and a homeless man who takes drug samples from a dumpster, becoming well enough for a job interview? Is this a story of the professional rivalry between two despicable salespeople? Or a look at the frustration of doctors who lose their idealism amid crushing bureaucracy?

I suppose the crux of the story is one disillusioned drug rep's hopeless efforts to help his beloved find a cure for Parkinson's disease.  Or maybe it's a chronicle of the rise of Viagra.  It also played like one big product placement for Pfizer (why?).

It is all of these, and none of these too.  It is a mess.

Jake Gyllenhaal is the handsome yet insecure workaholic who charms his way to the top and gets grounded by the love of a complicated woman who will need him more than he realizes. Anne Hathaway, playing that woman, is so good one believes her even when she is asked to deliver rapid-fire wisecracks.  Gyllenhaal, while always endearing, pushes this role too hard, and mugs for a laugh. But then, the script is as muddled and unsure as any I have seen of late, and the direction by Edward Zwick is similarly confused. 

It's a shame, because one occasionally catches a glimpse of a compelling conflict, some genuine romance, and a skeleton of what seems to have been inspired by the better parts of  topical movies like "Up in the Air".  I loved a scene (filmed in Chicago) in which Parkinson's patients relate their stories to a receptive audience.  I enjoyed the energy and irony in the scenes when Gyllenhaal is trained as a sales rep for Pfizer. But then his conquests and altercations become repetitive and embarrassing.  I also was intrigued by Hathaway's photo project, but then we never know what it is supposed to be, or what the final product is.  Similarly, Hathaway's character works with senior citizens who often take a bus to Canada to purchase cheaper prescriptions. 

But none of the threads goes's frustrating because the film swings wildly from scene to scene, as though someone messed up the screenplay and kept adding one ingredient after another until no one knew how to fix it.

Rather than concentrate on the insecurity of Gyllenhaal's character, as he fights to achieve his drug-sales quotas, we get an unnecessary backstory involving his disapproving family, and a subplot involving his younger brother. The latter is so unnecessary, and so out of line with the better intentions of this film, that it is painful, even offensive, whenever this character appears.  George Segal and the late Jill Clayburgh are wasted in brief appearances as Gyllenhaal's parents (If you miss the first five minutes, you will miss then entirely.)  And Oliver Platt, as Gyllenhaal's mentor and sales partner...well, I gave up trying to understand Pratt's appeal long ago.

Anne Hathaway is believable and touching as the young woman afflicted with incurable Parkinson's.  Her clear, large eyes and tender expressive face keeps one's attention glued to her.  Yet the filmmakers undermine her work.  How I wish the film narrowed its focus to the love story, while using the corruption of the health and pharmaceutical industries as a subtle commentary on the characters' fates.

It has been only five years since Hathaway and Gyllenhaal played a doomed married couple in "Brokeback Mountain".  The memory of that pairing hung heavily over this film, because "Love and Other Drugs" had almost none of the sensitivity of the former.  By re-teaming these two performers (who I like a lot, by the way) in a film that is snickering in its treatment of sex, body image and human anatomy, it was as though an attempt was being made to wipe out the memory of "Brokeback" once and for all.  

For me, a huge disappointment, knowing what this film could have been.

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