When searching for directors who craft unerringly human romantic comedies that never patronise their viewers, who do we turn to?
The list can be counted on one hand; Cameron Crowe (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Say Anything, Jerry Maguire), Woody Allen (Annie Hall, Manhattan), perhaps even Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy), and most recently Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer). What we certainly don’t expect is for Edward Zwick, best known for his impressively mounted epics and actioners (Glory, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond, Defiance), to come out with this refreshingly honest, if occasionally too treacly stab at the genre.
We meet Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he is a lowly, albeit charming, electronics store employee in the mid-90s. Having dropped out of medical school, he instead decides to become a pharmaceutical representative, lobbying doctors through various means to prescribe his favoured brands of medication. In this stead he meets Maggie (Anne Hathaway), an early-stage Alzheimer’s patient, with whom he embarks on a casual relationship driven largely by sex. However, the commitment-weary Jamie soon finds himself falling for Maggie, and the two uneasily must decide whether a relationship is possible with Maggie’s sure-to-worsen condition.
It is important to remember that Zwick’s very first film, About Last Night, a romantic dramedy, in fact, trod similar ground to Love and Other Drugs; it dealt with an emotionally shallow man discovering that he may or may not have a heart, and consequently how he changes as a result. Though Zwick hasn’t touched the genre in two-and-a-half decades, the humanism that infuses all of his works ensures that he is not out of his depth, and while it may reach for an audience-grabbing “You had me at hello” moment a little too eagerly, this is ultimately an actor’s film diguised as a fluffy crowd pleaser.
Zwick takes a two-pronged approach to his subjects; the film begins as a light and entertaining stab at the pharmaceutical boom of the 1990s, when Viagra revolutionised an industry and truly commodotised well-being, before turning to explore more character-based concerns, as the finality of Maggie’s condition comes home to roost. More successful as an honest character piece rather than a barbed satire, the film never explores in enough detail the industry as a whole, and instead presents it often as window-dressing for us to gawp at these two beautiful young people cavorting around naked without feeling too lascivious.
And yes, there is a lot of nudity. Though the two unquestionably own their roles here, Hathaway especially dives into hers by flaunting her undeniably fantastic figure for the camera at seemingly every errant opportunity; it never feels exploitative, though, because the relationship is all about sex, and when we see them lying around in the nude, talking about their lives, it feels more intimate and more real. For any criticism the film might earn about its predictable nature, that sanitised Hollywood sheen peels away as their clothes do; it is more emotionally raw than most of its equally star-studded, glossy contemporaries.
Gyllenhaal and Hathaway, who previously worked together on Brokeback Mountain, exhibit potent chemistry which keeps us invested in the emotional stakes through the few portions that drag their feet a bit. As separate components, they are good – Gyllenhaal is a slam dunk as the charming and arrogant rep, while Hathaway knocks it out of the park as a cynical young woman that has flashes of some of Diane Keaton’s roles – but together, they are great. Their likeability and evident chemistry makes it easy to root for these people, and groansome moments are hard to come by, making even genre cynics unlikely to dismiss this effort entirely.
It balances the comic and dramatic elements a little gingerly, and never probes as deep in its satirical bent as it should, but Gyllenhaal and Hathaway go to bat for Zwick big time, and the result is a pleasing if predictable work that isn’t a classic, but is a more emotionally potent, truthful and sexy film than the vast majority of the year’s rom-coms.
Love & Other Drugs is released in U.K. cinema’s today.