It’s Kind of a Scuzzy Story
There’s a word for people who are very clever at manipulating other people emotionally while feeling nothing themselves: that word is sociopath. Sociopaths can be very charming, but it’s all a game to them, a way to get in your head and get you to serve their needs in some way. And maybe the romantic comedy about a couple of sociopaths is where the Hollywood expression of the genre has been heading all along, since such films of recent vintage have been populated by unpleasant people doing unpleasant things in the hopes that we will be somehow charmed by them. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before pathological charm was deployed.
I can’t think of a better word than sociopath to describe Jake Gyllenhaal’s (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Brothers) pharmaceutical drug rep Jamie Randall. He is effortlessly able to romance females from eight to 80, but this doesn’t appear to be something he actually enjoys on its own merits: quite the opposite. He woos to get them to buy from him or to get them to have sex with him… though even the sex often appears calculated more to annoy other men than to satisfy his own physical needs. His mostly narratively superfluous brother (Josh Gad: Marmaduke, 21) at one point pegs Jamie with a spot-on zinger: Jamie hates women. But this elided over quickly, lest we pay too much attention to it and stop feeling sorry for Jamie, which we’re supposed to do because daddy didn’t love him enough, or something. That was probably true of Ted Bundy, too. In fact, Jamie’s best quality is that he does not appear to have descended into serial murder, which his work as an on-the-road salesman would actually be perfect cover for. Though I’m sure he has hobbies that the film doesn’t have time to hint at.
Anne Hathaway’s (Alice in Wonderland, Valentine’s Day) Maggie Murdock is slightly less obviously a sociopath, though perhaps only because we’re not used to, in pop culture settings, seeing women portrayed as such: women are such overly emotional creatures, or so the party line goes, so in the thrall of their own feelings, that one couldn’t possibly be unfeeling, could she? I actually figured Maggie for as big a gameplayer as Jamie, because when we first meet her, she has a hugely suspicious story to tell a doctor she doesn’t know (Hank Azaria: Year One, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian) about how her apartment was burgled and she needs all these emergency prescriptions for her early-onset Parkinson’s. Surely, I imagined, she’s a scam artist, a drug-seeker of some sort for some nefarious reasons of her own.
But no: She really is slowly, prettily dying of Parkinson’s disease… and that’s what makes her a gameplayer. She lurves sex, lurves it especially with Jamie, but she really, really hopes he’s not the shithead he appears to be, because then he’ll have to go, because she is too sick to get, you know, involved with someone beyond simple rutting. Relationships between the sick and the healthy simply don’t work, she knows… because — as we see — she turns into a horrible bitch the moment someone starts caring about her. (Hell, I’d walk out on her too if she was this intent on driving me away.) We’re supposed to feel bad for her, too, what with her dying so prettily and all, but her illness has nothing to do with it: she’s simply as awful a person to be around as Jamie is, and she would be if she were 100 percent healthy, too. (I was ready, at first, to be slightly positive about the depiction of a woman who just really likes and wants sex without commitment, but it’s clear that we’re meant to take from Maggie that only some rare neurological disease could account for such a personal philosophy; all the other women in the movie, even the sharky drug reps, appear to be out to marry doctors.)
Screenwriter Charles Randolph has made a career out of shallow, faux-serious studios film including The Life of David Gale — faux-serious about the death penalty — and The Interpreter — faux-serious about racially informed politics. Terrible as those movies were, they did at least put forth a veneer of significance that was consistent about what they wanted you to believe they cared about but that offered no actual substance with which to trouble your beautiful mind. Here, though: There are at least four different movies crammed into Love and Other Drugs, and they are all over the place. There’s the romantic comedy, between the jerk and the wacky dying free spirit who fall in love against the odds; the grossout comedy, since the year is 1997 and Jamie works for Pfizer and Pfizer has just released Viagra and Viagra gives dudes four-hour boners and four-hour boners are hilarious; the earnest drama about health-care reform and overpriced pharmaceuticals, as represented by one of Maggie’s kooky-cute hobbies, ferrying elderly folk up to Canada to buy cheap meds; and arthouse commentary on corporate sociopathy, as embodied in a what-the-fuck, outta-nowhere usage of the Kinks’ “A Well Respected Man” to underlie Jamie’s relentless cheerfulness in seducing doctors’ office administrators and nurses.
There’s so much awful here, however, that there’s plenty of blame to go round: to director-screenwriter Edward Zwick (Defiance, Blood Diamond), to cowriter Marshall Herskovitz (Special Bulletin), but perhaps not to Jamie Reidy, upon whose book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] this is surely only very loosely based. Love and Other Drugs is an even bigger crock of shit than Hollywood romantic comedies tend to be. There’s an achievement in that, I suppose, but not a good one.