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Sex sells

But obscures the heft of 'Love and Other Drugs.'


'LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS': Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway star.
  • 'LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS': Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway star.

There's something curiously ambitious about Edward Zwick's romantic comedy-drama "Love and Other Drugs." The pairing of hot young things Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway (seemingly to re-execute their sexual encounter from "Brokeback Mountain" with slightly less tragedy) will surely lure audiences — they're naked and gorgeous, they copulate in alleys and fall in love against their cringe-worthy self-proclaimed wills. But this is clearly not all this movie is going for.

Based on the 2005 memoir "Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman" by Jamie Reidy, "Love and Other Drugs" is set in 1997, when America was still wallowing in economic plenitude. And from the looks of it, anyone under the age of 30 with any kind of gumption could become a millionaire. Reidy, who becomes Randall in the film, is an electronics-store clerk college dropout with Disney-prince good looks, and whose only asset seems to be his pathological charm. After he gets fired, his dot-com-rich loathsome younger brother (played with everything but pit stains by professional annoyance Josh Gad) sets him up with a gig to become a Pfizer rep, and the sexiness begins.

The Pfizer training sequence montage reveals laughable excess, nearly combative sex appeal between young reps-to-be, and even includes cheerleaders dancing to "The Macarena" in what feels like a pep rally for the Evil Empire. These glittery images and micro-scenes are intercut with Randall memorizing empty facts about drug reactions and fudged statistical data to be regurgitated to doctors everywhere along with a fistful of complimentary ball-point pens. Yes, we're being told something about Big Pharma, but it's not exactly clear what it is yet.

During a genius maneuver to seize a general practitioner's account, Randall meets Maggie (Hathaway), who likes us enough to drop a boob out in her inaugural scene. But really Maggie is a 26-year-old suffering from stage I Parkinson's disease, whose expertise in pharmaceuticals is unfortunately related to her incurable condition. She and Randall are matched in their sexual aggression and disregard for serious relationships. After several weeks of inventively sleeping together, though, things start to get weird, as they are wont to do. Traditionally superficial Randall has to decide if he wants to move up the ladder of drug sales with a terminally ill girlfriend. It seems even pretty people have afflictions and harrowing choices to make.

The very inclusion of Parkinson's disease is like an instant dagger plunged into the side of the health care industry. We see heartbreaking sequences of how misunderstood the illness is, and how helpless it is to live with. Drugs fall short, doctors fall short, nothing works, and barely anything helps. Thankfully, Maggie isn't a broken-down Victorian-style weakling, she's a strong-willed and realistically neurotic woman, who terrorizes her new boyfriend with the same onslaught of insecurities that even a perfectly healthy young woman is capable of. Her character doesn't serve the sole purpose of being the voice of reason, or just showing her breasts, or merely embodying an indictment against Big Pharma and health care, in general. She does all of these things, and while it's refreshing, it's perhaps a little too much for a mainstream film of this capacity to hold together.

Randall naturally makes his big money with the advent of Pfizer's cash cow Viagra, the appearance of which in the film leads to a pointless slapstick sequence involving an orgy scene and priapism. While the movie does its best to lampoon the excesses of sex and money in the '90s, it paradoxically loses itself in the glitzy portrayal of that sex-and-money-ness.

"Love and Other Drugs" wants to take itself seriously. It wants to be a scathing critique of what big, nasty companies like Pfizer did to the health care industry. It wants you to be able to have universal health care and afford your medications. But it can't help peering into the soft valley of Gyllenhaal's chest hair, or ripping off Hathaway's shirt at any given moment. Their love story is unique in itself, without the trappings of self-conscious commentary, but the film is presented as only half-aware of its potentially rousing storylines. There is just enough sex to eclipse the critical trajectory of the movie, and audiences who come with the sole desire to see Gyllenhaal and Hathaway show their asses will probably leave pleased.

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