Silver Screen: Love and Other Drugs *1/2

Silver Screen: Love and Other Drugs  *1/2
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Love and Other Drugs *1/2
Bryan Miller

Nostalgic for the 1990s yet?

Director Edward Zwick sure hopes so. Zwick's latest, a weird amalgam of sex comedy, romantic dramedy, and terminal-illness-weepie, plays at times like an episode of VH1's I Love the Nineties with a narrative-- and lots of nudity.

The distant-past throwback kicks off with a Spin Doctors song, so chronologically, it makes sense when Fatboy Slim's "Praise You" pops up about an hour later. By then we're in full-on Viagra-joke territory, skipping entirely over jokes about cigars and blue dresses, but not before the costars film each other with a handheld camera, allowing for the direct-address video-within-video confessional Reality Bites flashback.

Love and Other Drugs is based, I'm not quite sure how loosely, on Jamie Reidy's book, Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman. The emergence of the commercialized prescription-drug market is a fascinating development absolutely intrinsic to the 1990s, which is why it's such a shame when the movie abandons that as its central conceit.

For the first half hour, selling legal drugs is Zwick's prime focus. We meet Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal), a distractible, libidinous med-school dropout from a well-to-do family of doctors. After the slacker casanova is fired from his job selling stereo equipment for sleeping with his boss's girlfriend, he's drawn to a new job as a pharmaceutical sales rep, which pretty much entails bribing doctors to dole out his company's pills over those of the rivals.

In the movie's one truly compelling sequence, we follow Jamie through a six-week training camp where he's given just enough pharmacological knowledge to sound competent so he can convince doctors to convince their unwitting patients to go on mind-altering drugs for the remainder of their natural lives. As his suit-clad pusher mentor (Oliver Platt) tells him, the antidepressants are the primary product because the company, Pfizer, can only sell the other pills until the condition is cured, but Zoloft is a lifetime contract.

Jamie's fortunes change, though, when Pfizer creates Viagra. This development is perfect for Jamie, who can combine his talents as a salesman and an assman to move America's favorite new pill.

Instead of following through with the social and moral implications of Jamie's job, though, Zwick and screenwriters Charles Randolph and Marshall Herskovitz introduce Maggie (Anne Hathaway), a beguiling waitress with early-onset Parkinson's. She's sassy, sexy, and incurable, and it's the latter adjective that takes over the second half of the film.

Maggie initially insists that her relationship with Jamie should be strictly physical, but it isn't long before the two are dating for real. As the consequences of her illness become more clear to him, Jamie becomes obsessed with using his connections in the medical field to find an experimental treatment that will cure, or at least significantly slow down, her deteriorating condition.

Love and Other Drugs was halfway interesting as a social satire, it's barely competent as a romantic comedy, and fails utterly as a drama in the atrophied vein of Love Story. Jamie and Maggie aren't a particularly likeable couple-- he's shallow and her shrillness-as-defense-mechanism just plays like garden-variety shrillness-- so when their love affair seems doomed... well, that's not such a bad thing. The predictable, protracted search for a cure isn't touching, it's maudlin, calling to mind the absolute worst elements of, say, Untamed Heart or Dying Young. Zwick and his crew utterly fail to make the one possible connection between Jamie's selling heavily researched and marketed, often unnecessary or over-prescribed medications and Maggie's inability to find drugs that work for her, and even that might be a stretch. The result is a movie that feels like two scripts mashed together at the last second before shooting, with all the good stuff front-loaded. That both of these bad movies feature the intolerable Josh Gad, a grating Jonah Hill knockoff, doesn't help either of them.

Gyllenhaal and Hathaway are an appealing enough couple, and they might make an interesting duo in a better romance. But this one is just painful and offers audiences few consolations, save for lots and lots of exposed skin from its stars and a nifty soundtrack that includes not only the aforementioned Spin Doctors and Fatboy Slim tunes, but also the Kinks ("Well Respected Man"), Wilco and Billy Bragg ("Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key"), and Beck ("Jackass"). You'd be better served by recreating the soundtrack on an iTunes playlist and listening to it while watching Hathaway and Gyllenhaal's love scene from Brokeback Mountain on a loop. Same basic effect, a lot less time.