There’s the makings of a sharp satire of the pharmaceutical business in Edward Zwick’s “Love and Other Drugs,” in which Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Randall, a charismatic new salesman for Pfizer at the very moment the company introduces Viagra to the market. But rather than going for something akin to “Thank You for Smoking,” Zwick and his co-writers opt to concentrate instead on Jamie’s romance with Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), a young woman afflicted with early-onset Parkinson’s, and go for sentiment (and rather heavy-handed commentary on medical ethics and holistic therapy).. And they add to the mix an obnoxious second-banana in the person of Jamie’s chubby brother Josh (Josh Gad, a sort stand-in for Jonah Hill) who’s straight out of Sitcom 101. The result is more a romantic comedy than a satire, and while it’s not one of the worst examples of the genre, it could have been so much more.
Jamie, who loses his job at an electronics store because of his womanizing tendencies as the picture begins, soon joins Pfizer and after a preparatory pep-talk seminar takes to the road under the guidance of a quota-pushing boss Bruce (Oliver Platt). But his failure to get physicians to prescribe his company’s Zoloft in place of the best-selling Prozac being pushed by his slick rival Trey (Gabriel Macht) leads him to use his special gifts to get access to important doctors. That includes romancing a receptionist (Judy Greer) to get to her boss Stan Knight (Hank Azaria), through whom he meets Maggie, an energetic artist and activist (among other things, she arranges bus trips to Canada for seniors to buy their medicines at lower prices there).
Though Maggie’s initially resistant, before long they’re an item—Zwick stages some quite revealing bedroom scenes for the pair—even if their chances for time together are frequently inhibited by Josh, who’s been tossed out by his wife and crashes permanently with Jamie, despite being extremely wealthy (having just sold a company specializing in medical software). There’s also the problem that she’d once been involved with Jamie’s Prozac rival—and that her disease periodically causes her grave problems (though only when the script requires them, of course—one of the consistent clichés of such pictures, in which symptoms go on and off according to the dictates of the plot, as though the screenwriters were employing a light switch). The complications that temporarily derail the couple’s inevitable final embrace are, on the one hand, Maggie’s inability to fully commit given her condition, and Jamie’s obsession, once he sees how serious it is, to find a cure—something that has him dragging her from hospital to hospital and specialist to specialist in the most miscalculated of the movie’s many musical montages.
Lost in the script’s devotion to the romantic comedy conventions is the opportunity to say something pointed about excesses of the Big Pharma. Jamie’s relationship with Bruce and his rivalry with Trey are reduced to sitcom shtick. And his hawking of Viagra, which could have been a source of some stinging humor, is instead turned into scenes of sub-“Music Man” quality, in which the product is greeted with unrestrained hosannas worthy of the Second Coming, unfazed by any hint of wretched excess. And what’s to be made of the moment when Knight, previously portrayed as a pure pragmatist and unregenerate womanizer, suddenly confesses his early idealism and his pain over what his profession has become? It comes across as a response to a sudden urge to pander to the AMA.
What remains, therefore, is the picture as Hollywood romcom, and in that category it stacks up reasonably well against most of the admittedly wretched examples of that genre, even though it’s not the message-oriented Zwick’s usual cup of tea. Gyllenhaal is certainly more in his element here than he was trying to be an action hero in “Prince of Persia,” exuding charm, and Hathaway is mostly ingratiating despite Maggie’s periodic descents into brittleness. There’s too much Gad for comfort—a little of him goes a long way—but the reliable Platt has some good moments, and a surprisingly staid Azaria makes the most of his scenes. And while Macht is as usual a nonentity, it’s nice to see the veteran George Segal as Jamie’s father, and to have the chance to say hail and farewell to Jill Clayburgh, who has a walk-on as his mother
Apart from the customary overabundance of musical montages, the movie is decently shot and edited (by Steven Fierberg and Steven Rosenblum), making nice use of its Pittsburgh locations. James Newton Howard’s score, however, too often slips into formula.
In sum, a better-than-average Hollywood romantic comedy, but one that’s especially disappointing in its failure to deliver on its satirical potential.