Wednesday, March 9, 2011

On DVD: "Love and Other Drugs"

There’s nothing wrong with Edward Zwick’s Love and Other Drugs that couldn’t be fixed by a top-to-bottom rethinking of the entire romantic comedy genre. Everything in it that fails is the result of decades of formula creation: the catch-and-release relationship pattern, the endless music montages, the zany sidekick. Everything in it that it is interesting—its darkness, its sexuality, its honest-to-goodness complexity—seems ported in from another, far more compelling picture. Oh that they could’ve abandoned the cutesy shit and made that movie instead.

The opening scenes, which are short and snappy and more than a little glossy, work pretty well; Jake Gylenaal’s Jamie Randall is properly established as a womanizing slickster, and his Meet Cute with Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway) is funny, but with an edge. That prickliness carries over to their first “date,” which is carefully and cleverly written—Maggie’s got this guy’s number from the moment he sits down, calls him on his bullshit, and he hasn’t the foggiest idea how to react to it. The forcefulness and animal abandon of their first sexual encounter indicates the picture (and the actors) might be going into some interesting territory, but as soon as that possibility is broached, director Zwick retreats; rather than push further into the psychology of their all-sex-all-the-time connection, he stages their various encounters as a wacky music video, set to The Kinks’ “Well Respected Man.” They’re doing it in an alley! They’re doing it at her job! She comes out of the back room and her hair’s all mussed! Those crazy kids.

If this were all happening in a throwaway rom-com fronted by Katherine Heigl or someone, none of these genre requirements would cause us to bat an eye. But Love and Other Drugs is the work of a real filmmaker: Zwick is the director of big-canvass movies like Glory, The Siege, and Blood Diamond, here making a return to his character-driven roots (he first gained prominence as the creator of the iconic late-‘80s dramedy thirtysomething). One would hope he could shake things up a bit, but not really—the will-they-or-won’t-they-take-the-plunge-from-sex-to-love story arc and music montage-heavy style is anything but new. Zwick seems, in places, to be remaking his own feature debut, the glossy love-and-sex comedy/drama About Last Night.

So we’ve got a Jim Belushi-style loudmouth sidekick in the form of Jamie’s brother Josh, played by the likable but limited Josh Gad (who, it must be said, I would have difficulty putting into the same gene pool as Gyllenhaal). He supplies some laughs—early on, at least—but could we have done without him? Probably. Ditto the villainous Trey Hannigan (Gabriel Macht), Jamie’s business rival who turns out (of course) to be a former paramour of Maggie, a coincidence that stretches credibility and takes the story nowhere in particular.

Strangely, the element of the screenplay that would seem least promising provides its most interesting scenes. Maggie, though only 26, suffers from early-onset Parkinson’s (which is basically how they meet—Jamie is a pharmaceutical rep trying to sell to her doctor), and her awareness of what lies ahead is what keeps her at arm’s length from potential serious relationships. This all sounds like Lifetime movie stuff, but when she blasts Jamie by saying, “You do realize that you are not good person just because you pity-fuck the sick girl?”, we lean forward. Now we’re getting somewhere; now you’re showing me something I’ve at least seen a few less times. Ditto and double that for the scene at a support group, in which Jamie finds himself in a candid and eye-opening conversation with the husband of a Parkinson’s sufferer; the scene that follows, in which Jamie and Maggie are suddenly in very different headspaces, is riveting—but then it’s time for another music montage, and a predicable pattern of conflict and resolution on the way to an ending that is just a little too overwrought, a little too hokey, and a lot too easy.

The supporting cast goes surprisingly deep—the always-welcome Oliver Platt and Hank Azaria provide plenty of extra juice, though a few players (like George Segal and the late Jill Clayburgh as Jamie and Josh’s parents) are underused. Gyllenhaal has some good moments, and uses his rakish charm and off-screen persona as a ladies’ man to the picture’s benefit, much as Clooney did in Up in the Air (a film that this one is, at least superficially, not dissimilar to). But Hathaway’s is the showcase performance here; even if the role as written ends up splitting her into too many contradictions at the service of the story, her open face and laconic line readings pull them together and win you over. The way she reacts to him saying “I love you,” is perfection; the way she tells him “You’re killin’ me, Randall” late in the film is an absolute heartbreaker.

There is enough that works in Love and Other Drugs—the leading performers, their undeniable chemistry and unashamed sexuality, the darker corners of the story—to warrant seeking it out; it is not a boring picture, and even when it is treading very familiar ground, it engages and entertains. But it doesn’t hold in the memory afterwards; for all of the premium talent involved and occasional risks they take, the picture too often plays it comfortably safe.

"Love and Other Drugs" was released on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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