Thursday, 10 February 2011

Film Review | Love And Other Drugs (2010)

Love them or hate them, one thing that is certainly true of romantic comedies is that you know exactly where you are with them in terms of characterisation and plot development. Of all the contemporary popular film genres, the rom-com is the most reliably safe. Directors and actors remain firmly on the rails to produce middle-of-the-road cinema that they know has a definite audience who paid to see a film that will offer unchallenging viewing and nothing coming out of left field. True, straying from this tried and tested formula can sometimes produce surprisingly pleasing results - just watch (500) Days Of Summer - but it can also hatch cinematic turkeys that can't even provide the vanilla comedy of their unreservedly formulaic cousins. And whilst Love And Other Drugs isn't a complete and utter disaster, it ultimately veers firmly into the latter scenario.

Set in the mid '90s, the film tells the story of Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal), a salesman for drugs company Pfizer whose success comes from being one of the first people to sell viagra to medical practitioners. After talking his way into shadowing an influential doctor (Hank Azaria) Jamie meets Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), a patient suffering from early onset Parkinson's. The two quickly form an almost entirely physical relationship, but this soon begins to develop into something more complex.

Technically, I suppose, Love And Other Drugs is a romantic comedy-drama (or "dramedy" for those whose time is too precious to say two words where one can be portmanteaued into existence) as it is clear some sections are there to make you laugh, and others are definitely not. One of the key problems in the film is that of balance; when providing comedy the scenes are simply not funny enough, or awkardly juxtaposed with pathos that makes you unsure of whether you should be laughing or not. Equally, when tackling more serious scenes, the emotion can seem limp - and at times almost completely absent - and the film quickly becomes tedious.

The reason behind this imbalance is that neither Gyllenhaal nor Hathaway's characters are very nice people, which makes it hard to care much about the things that happen to them. Soon after we are first introduced to Gyllenhaal's Jamie he is promptly fired from his job in a top-of-the-range electrical shop for unashamedly shagging his boss's girfriend in the stockroom. Receiving a punch in the face for his troubles, Jamie promptly reminds his irate former employer that he's owed a significant amount in commission and runs out of the store, flirting with a female customer all the while. Jamie comes across as shallow and arrogant from the start, which makes it very hard to care about - or indeed believe in - his emotional journey with Maggie later on. Gyllenhaal has proven in the past that he can deliver when it comes to challenging roles, but here his performance simply doesn't provide the emotional depth or connection with the audience needed to make his character either credible or appealing.

Anne Hathaway too struggles to lift Maggie off the screen, leaving her a collection of rom-com and tearjerker clichés that largely come across as irritating. The fact that Maggie is suffering from a disease rarely associated with the younger generation would seem a fairly easy way of generating sympathy for her; instead, Maggie comes across for most of the film as something of a self-obsessed bitch. Granted, suffering from Parkinson's at such a young age can't be easy, but there are so few moments in the film where Maggie shows even a modicum of care for anyone other than herself that it's hard not to consciously detach yourself from the character entirely. As a result of this, the handful of scenes where Hathaway does begin to bring some depth to her character's condition are rendered entirely useless.

With the two main characters so undesirable, it's not difficult to see why the story becomes tedious fairly quickly. After initially seeming like an extended fling, Jamie and Maggie's relationship soon moves into more involved territory (after much preening and self-obsession from both characters), but this shift is both hard to believe and hard to care about. By the film's halfway point I'd lost virtually all interest in their relationship: when Maggie begins to self-destruct, struggling to cope with the hopelessness of her incurable condition, I genuinely wasn't bothered whether Hathaway and Gyllenhaal's characters stayed together or broke off their relationship. The incredibly clichéd rom-com climax to the film, which seems somewhat out of place following the relatively less conventional format of that which has preceded it, might have felt a bit more disappointing had my attention still been held at that point. As it is, I wasn't all that surprised - it just felt like the filmmakers had given up hope on the film a bit later than I had.

Supporting characters are either achingly out of place (Josh Gad as Jamie's brother Josh feels like he's wandered out of a Judd Apatow film) or painfully underutilised - Jamie's sales partner Bruce (Oliver Platt) appears to be a character with a story potentially much more interesting and affecting than that of Jamie and Maggie, but sadly is relegated to the position of underdeveloped side character.

Considering Love And Other Drugs is based upon a non-fiction book, it's a shame that so many elements in the film are lacking in either dimension or authenticity. Love And Other Drugs has all the ingredients to potentially make it a refreshing and original take on the rom-com genre. But with misfire after misfire in terms of plot and script coupled with lacklustre performances by the leads, this doesn't even have the quick and easy bubblegum cinema charm of safer offerings in the genre. If there was a cinematic equivalent of viagra, Love And Other Drugs would require a lengthy prescription, delivering as it does a consistently disappointing performance.


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