Big, sweeping relationship dramas were once the vehicles of choice for Hollywood starmaking wattage. Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan and briefly, Renée Zell-weger, needed their Pretty Woman, Sleepless in Seattle and Jerry Maguire to cement their transitions from ingénues to larger-than-life household names. It wasn’t until that rare gem of a smartly written fairy tale that both tapped into the popular zeitgeist and garnered some Oscar gold came along that they officially became A-listers.
With the rise of independent film and the fall of mid-budget charmers, that final rung on the ladder seemed lost for good – that’s why today’s young starlets (Amy Adams, Natalie Portman) remain just that: starlets. With the exception of Carey Mulligan, who took a major step with An Education and now seems poised for coronation with the news of her winning the Daisy Buchanan role in Baz Luhr-mann’s Gatsby, there hasn’t been an outlet for the old style of royal ascension.
Love & Other Drugs and its helmer, Edward Zwick, wants desperately to change that dynamic to bring back the traditional idea of grownup stars. Yes, Zwick spent the majority of his career doing overblown war-think pieces like Courage Under Fire, The Last Samurai and Glory, but it’s easy to forget that Zwick was also partly responsible for deeply observed slices of life like thirtysomething and My So-Called Life. In fact, his debut feature as a director was the classic brat-pack dramedy About Last Night … .
So it’s not as baffling as some have found it that Zwick has returned to his soul-searching roots with this nearly beat-for-beat variation on Jerry Maguire, and that Drugs’ stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway deliver just that kind of old-fashioned Hollywood power Zwick was reaching for.
Gyllenhaal, with his perennial shades-and-blazer swagger and mega-ton smile absolutely owns the screen as Jamie Randall, an on-the-rise pharmaceutical salesman who’s just been handed the keys to the Big Pharma kingdom with an order to pimp out Pfizer’s new and blue “fuck drug,” Viagra (the film takes place in 1997) to influential doctors. But, in timeless fashion, something’s missing from his life.
Along comes Maggie Murdock, an irresistibly cynical free spirit whose sexual appetite, smarts and independence seems to be a perfect match for Jamie. One big catch is that Maggie is 100 percent crushable and Jamie understandably falls hard for her. The other mondo problem is that Maggie’s an early-stage Parkinson’s sufferer. As Maggie, the lovely Anne Hathaway ascends to Julia Roberts status. Hathaway’s confident, lived-in turn is both a reflection of Hathaway’s earned magnetism and Zwick’s sure hand behind the camera.
It sounds like a setup for Terms of Endearment melodrama – and yes, it flirts with that – but Zwick and his stars rightly focus instead on the ins and outs of high-powered romance and jet-fueled sex – the film’s tone is unapologetically Clintonian. There are writhing naked bodies, sumptuous colors, weepy professions of love, seen-it-all wisecracks and, at times, clunky sight gags.
At heart, Zwick is a people pleaser, and though Drugs is a refreshing throwback to a time when adults could do adult things onscreen and not act like overgrown prepubescents, the writer-director’s grab for topicality leads to some dead ends.
But at least someone is trying again, and with Zwick’s peers James L. Brooks and Cameron Crowe languishing on the vine, and younger adult rom-com acolytes still getting tangled in false morality – Jason Reitman would have a field day punishing Jamie and Maggie for their ambition – we’ll take what we can get. To paraphrase Drugs’ older sibling, Jerry Maguire: I love Love & Other Drugs for the film it wants to be and for the film it almost is.
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