A super-slick romantic comedy about a charismatic go-getter who pursues his calling and his soul mate in the unlikely world of pharmaceutical sales, “Love & Other Drugs” is snappy, saucy and, like any overzealous product-pusher, rather too eager to please. Notable for its barbed portrait of how doctors and drug companies do business, as well as an uncommon degree of sexual candor for a mainstream picture, this smartly packaged item otherwise hews closely to genre prescriptions. That bodes well for B.O. prospects, and ingratiating performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway should help sell the Fox release to the general public.
Loosely adapted from Jamie Reidy’s humorous memoir, “Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman,” “Love & Other Drugs” qualifies as a change of pace for the usually more epic-minded Edward Zwick (“Defiance,” “The Last Samurai”). Still, the film has some interesting points of contact with the director’s “Blood Diamond,” which similarly took aim at a corrupt global industry, represented by an ambitious young stud with a wobbly moral compass. Here, that would be Jamie Randall (Gyllenhaal), a good-looking, fast-talking young man who’s a chronic underachiever everywhere except between the sheets — at least, until he lands a sales position at pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.
It’s 1996, and the screenplay (by Zwick, Charles Randolph and Marshall Herskovitz, all credited as producers) amusingly sketches the mass commercialization of the drug industry, as Jamie and hundreds of other aspiring reps are trained to pitch products like Zoloft to doctors, some of whom require more persuasion than others. With his eye on a coveted Pfizer post in Chicago, Jamie is not above seducing a clinic receptionist (Judy Greer), sabotaging a Prozac-peddling rival (Gabriel Macht) or resorting to other unscrupulous means, often encouraged by his battle-hardened mentor (a fine Oliver Platt).
One of these tactics brings Jamie into unexpected contact with Maggie Murdock (Hathaway), who, at 26, has already been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. After an unusually punchy meet-cute — he peeks at her bare breast during a medical exam, she wallops him with her messenger bag — Jamie soon becomes smitten with the wry, rough-edged Maggie, who readily agrees to sleep with him but insists on maintaining an emotional distance. And so, the love of a good but sick woman helps Jamie regain his lost soul, while his steadfast devotion throws Maggie off-guard and forces her to confront her own commitment issues.
If one can get past the calculation inherent in the drug-pushing-boy-meets-disease-stricken-girl setup, “Love & Other Drugs” clicks largely because its actors do (no small feat, considering what an unhappy couple Gyllenhaal and Hathaway made in “Brokeback Mountain”). Their ribald pillow talk lends the film a verbal tartness that’s complemented visually by the abundant nudity, though tasteful use of shadows and strategic camera placement still leave plenty to the imagination.
Jamie’s tempestuous relationship with Maggie coincides with his, er, rising fortunes when he’s tapped to sell Viagra, just as demand for the performance-enhancing drug is beginning to sweep the nation, and Zwick’s unflattering snapshot of the venality of the medical establishment is fascinating, if fanciful (one hopes). But it also raises expectations of seriousness, or at least deeper satirical intent, that fizzle out as the film earnestly toes the romantic-comedy line.
There seems to be no significant development, whether it’s Jamie’s training at Pfizer or his tireless quest for a cure for Parkinson’s, that can’t be reduced to a zippy montage, and the final scenes are awash in much teary emoting and the unsubtle strains of James Newton Howard’s score. In this context, even the character of Jamie’s less attractive but more successful brother (an amusing Josh Gad) comes across as a stock supporting oaf. “Love & Other Drugs” is a jagged little pill that, in the end, goes down too smoothly.
That the film’s treatment of Parkinson’s disease feels as respectful as it does is a credit to Hathaway’s sensitive, understated rendering of her character’s symptoms, which appear to manifest themselves only when most convenient for the narrative. Crucially, the actress makes Maggie a vivacious presence, the sheer force of her spirit serving as a rebuke to her physical setbacks and countering the film’s generally insulting view of women (who fall into three basic categories here: bimbos, opportunists and Parkinson’s patients). As Jamie, the ideally cast Gyllenhaal turns on the charm full force, his energetic puppy-dog demeanor all but daring the viewer not to buy whatever he’s selling.
Smoothly mounted pic was lensed in and around Pittsburgh. Soundtrack, crammed with ’90s hits, seems overly determined to underscore the pic’s timeframe.