Romantic comedy would seem to be out of character for Ed Zwick, macho director of lavish melodramatic epics like Glory, Legends of the Fall and Defiance, until one scours his IMDB back catalogue and discovers About Last Night lurking in the wings. An intimate story of passion and affairs starring Rob Lowe and Demi Moore, it was the kind of small-scale project on which Zwick made his name; Love and Other Drugs marks his return to such material.
Much like last year’s George Clooney hit Up in the Air, Drugs starts as one thing and ends as something else. But whereas Up in the Air ended on a brave note of melancholy, even pessimism, Drugs’ downward slide is sickly and sentimental. There’s even a scene in which someone is forced to flag down a bus carrying another key character, all for the sake of romance. That’s so Love Actually.
If all this sounds a little harsh, it’s only because the first half is so good: enjoyably mercurial and unpredictable, with Jake Gyllenhaal deploying the kind of rogeuish charm that was absent from the tedious Prince of Persia. Adapted from Jamie Reidy’s novel Hard Sell: Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, the busy narrative peels off all over the place, with the inevitable result that certain strands feel undercooked. It purports to be a socio-political examination, bawdy farce, romance and heartfelt drama all rolled into one, kicking off when Gyllenhaal’s Jamie Randall (a stand-in for the author?) is sacked from his mid-90s job as an electrical salesman for having a fling with his boss’s girlfriend.
In the spirit of the period, he is then encouraged to make money. Lots of it. And make it he does, as a salesman for a vaguely repulsive company selling pharmaceutical drugs to doctors. But for a man who believes love is as disposable as the drugs he sells, Jamie’s heart is about to be melted by Maggie (Anne Hathaway), a young woman with onset Parkinson’s, one who will force him to confront the vacuousness of his existence.
Before the maudlin fluff is laid on with a trowel, both stars enjoy a refreshingly physical chemistry. It’s the kind of celebration of sexuality that is rarely seen in mainstream American cinema, showcasing a kind of unabashed intimacy between Gyllenhaal and Hathaway that’s more European than Hollywood.
In these early stages, the film is also possessed of an enjoyably caustic tone, glancing cynically at characters, situations and relationships. Contradictions run rife across the screen, whether it’s commitment-phobe Hathaway looking for a purely physical relationship due to the nature of her illness or ambivalent doctor Hank Azaria bouncing between Gyllenhaal’s and Gabriel Macht’s competing sales reps (the film doesn’t exactly paint doctors in a flattering light). Inevitably not all of it is successful, the film never grapples with its historical context as the source novel presumably does.
But the biggest disappointment comes in the latter stages when the film enters into plot developments so syrupy, they’d make treacle blush. Zingy support parts like Oliver Platt as Gyllenhaal’s sleazy mentor and Josh Gad as his slovenly brother are largely cast into the wind and the most interesting, abrasive aspects of the protagonists are ironed out for the purposes of a more conventional romance. It’s a real shame because it features two stars excellent at digging beneath their good-looking exteriors to extract feelings of loneliness and discontent; ultimately however, they are undercut by the narrative. It’s ironic that a film which starts by examining the disposability of drugs and relationships ends up feeling perfectly disposable itself.