Love and Other Drugs attempts a difficult juggling act. It wants to tell a story about a pretty serious disease, and what it means to be with someone who cannot live a normal life. It also attempts to lay down a criticism of the pharmaceutical industry and the healthcare system as a whole. And then there’s the part of it that just wants to be a mainstream romantic comedy. The film might have benefitted from dropping at least one of these objects. No matter how compelling some parts of it may be, the whole suffers from a dichotomy of tone.
Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal) doesn’t take life very seriously. He dropped out of med school, floats from one job to another, and spends all his free time having casual sex with whatever woman catches his fancy. But while working as a Pfizer rep, he meets Maggie (Anne Hathaway), who suffered from early onset Parkinson’s. Though things start out pretty casual, Jamie soon sees the relationship becoming something more. But Maggie isn’t quite ready for the same commitment, her disease keeping her from pursuing anything long term.
The film features an uneasy mix of typical romantic comedy shenanigans and serious Parkinson’s drama. The film might portray the painful futility of seeking treatment for an incurable disease, right before a scene where a goofy supporting character is caught masturbating to a homemade sex tape. The film certainly didn’t need to be dour, but it might have worked a little better if it refused to lapse into the default language of silly romcoms. The film seems to want to be something more, but every time it comes close to actually commenting on the state of modern American healthcare, or realizing the dramatic potential of the premise, it just backs off.
The disparity of tone doesn’t derail the movie completely, though. The characters are pretty well written, and the chemistry between the two leads lets all that dialogue shine. And while the film doesn’t quite commit to its opinion of the broken state of American healthcare, it still manages a couple of subversive dogs at the whole system. One senses that there’s a more substantial film hiding in all of this, but mainstream concerns eventually overshadowed what the filmmakers actually wanted to say.
The combination of Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway is a potent one. Though they start out playing types, they augment their roles with striking vulnerability. Whereas most actors play towards the change their characters eventually experience, the latent trauma of these characters is visible from minute one. They aren’t as carefree as they make themselves out to be, their acting out a means of compensating for their paralyzing fears. Hathaway and Gyllenhaal look past the wackiness and hit something closer to home. The supporting cast mainly sticks to playing types, however, again highlighting the two very different tones that plague the film. Josh Gad looks and feels like he belongs in a different film.
Love and Other Drugs delivers a lot of little sweet notes. It triumphs when it concentrates on the relationship, where the two leads bring color and nuance to romcom pablum. But there’s a lot more to this film than that, its incessant need to contrive the wackiness of mainstream comedies ultimately weighing everything down. Cuts don’t help matters, the censorship betraying the maturity of the subject matter. The best thing I can say is that the film is better than the average romantic comedy, but given what’s out there, it isn’t exactly high praise.