As it goes about its romantic-comedy-drama business, Love and Other Drugs also conjures a sometimes fascinating other plot. That part is based on Hard Sell, a memoir and expose about selling Viagra in the ‘90s, and centers on Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal), introduced as he’s selling stereo equipment—until he gets tossed out for sleeping with the boss’ girlfriend. Unlike his enormously successful family members, Jamie has bounced from job to job, usually in sales. Though blessed with good looks and smooth talk, he’s far better at selling himself than any other products, perhaps because he’s primarily interested in getting laid.
Soon Jamie moves bounces into a pharmaceutical rep position for Pfizer, chasing down doctors and pushing the benefits of Zoloft over then-fashionable Prozac. While posing as an intern with Dr. Knight (Hank Azaria), Jamie meets an early-onset Parkinson’s patient, Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway). She’s dismissive at first, even combative when he sits in on an impromptu breast exam. But Jamie persists and it only takes a few scenes before they tumble into casual sex, which Love and Other Drugs treats with refreshing frankness—it’s the first mainstream romantic comedy in ages not to regard naked bodies (gamely and evenly shown off by Hathaway and Gyllenhaal) with an uncomfortable mix of mockery and embarrassment.
Indeed, judged by the standards of today’s dire rom-com, Love and Other Drugs is smart and specific, based as it is on a couple’s evolving relationship rather than a drawn-out 90-minute flirtation. They both insist that they don’t want a real relationship, but they keep coming back, beeping each other for lots more enthusiastic sex. Eventually, actual conversation starts to seep in.
The other plot concerns Jamie’s career, which takes off when he starts pushing the new drug Viagra. Blue pills in hand, he finally finds his salesman niche, channeling his powers of seduction into promises of a sexual cure-all. Similarly, Gyllenhaal channels his wide-eyed eagerness into a slicker, less puppyish guy than he usually plays, and the movie smartly showcases Jamie’s adjusting of his restless energy—to sales jobs, to Maggie, and to real, conflicting feelings.
Maggie, for her part, has the hard-charging quirkiness of what has become known as a “manic pixie dream girl,” a phrase coined by A.V. Club writer Nathan Rabin and almost instantly applied to dismiss any female romantic lead without the staidness and restraint of tastefully humorless kitchen-sink indies. But despite Hathaway’s combination of prickliness and movie-star charm, the Polaroid-taking, art-making, guy-analyzing Maggie probably qualifies for this dubious term, especially when the movie conveniently denies her any visible friends, family, or even many acquaintances.
Jamie, by contrast, has too much supporting cast, including Knight and a romantic rival (Gabriel Macht), as well as parents (George Segal and Jill Clayburgh) and an uncouth older brother named Josh (Josh Gad, babbling as if through a poor man’s Jonah Hill routine). He’s like a character out of another movie entirely, and not a good one—an Apatow knockoff where the hero needs an even more vulgar, faux-outrageous sidekick. Romantic comedies often depend on such characters for structural stability, a perspective outside of the central relationship. For the most part, though, Gad just appears in pointless, flailing comic interludes, a stunning miscalculation given what else the movie has on its plate.
While wasting time on Gad’s antics, Love and Other Drugs fails to capitalize on the specific time it so insists on capturing. The film announces its 1996 setting at the outset, then attempts to underline it by playing self-consciously “‘90s” music cues. But most of these songs fail to evoke that specific year (“Two Princes” by the Spin Doctors being more of a 1992 jam, and Liz Phair’s “Supernova” having more prominence in 1994—though “The Macarena” is chillingly on-target)—or any mood beyond “Hey, remember the ‘90s?”
This superficial alluding underlines the movie’s view of the decade less as a specific time than a convenient location for some relationship issues and a side of medical drama. Love and Other Drugs is engaging in the moment, and Gyllenhaal and Hathaway do their best to create a convincing couple. But eventually even their efforts are swept away by generic blather, bold declarations of purpose and weepy talk of a life-changing love. Really, it doesn’t matter what year they’re supposed to be living in.