Why does a person fall in love with another person?
It’s one of the fundamental questions of art. There are mountains of books and movies and poems and songs and paintings and sculpture and performance about the question, both asking and attempting to answer it. Even so, it’s an answer you can’t offer up as a general all-purpose thing. No two couples are the same. No two relationships are the same. No two people are drawn together in the exact same way. And so we return to this idea, examining it a thousand different ways, hoping to find the universal in the specific, hoping for some answer that will make sense of these powerful forces that so often render us helpless.
Movies often bungle the “why” in love stories, and to my mind, the “why” is all that matters. There’s a reason movies often resort to what they call the “meet cute,” these phony, ridiculous situations that are meant to serve as shorthand to all the things that actually go into the cultivation of a relationship. It’s a shortcut. We’re simply meant to assume in most movies that the lead characters fall in love because that’s what the story is about. Writers will go out of their way to create elaborate scenarios that drive characters apart, manufactured tension that doesn’t really work because of our knowledge of genre convention. When you go see 99.9% of all romantic films, drama or comedy, you can be assured that you will get a happy ending. The two pretty people on the poster? They’ll end up in each other’s arms, one way or another, and the more elaborate the gesture and the more ridiculous the situation, the more it seems like audiences eat it up. The slow clap, the run through the airport, the declaration as someone walks across a crowded office that’s come to a stop to watch… these are the ways we signify love on film.
When filmmakers manage to capture something honest on film, something that actually speaks to that experience, those connections, the way we lose ourselves or find ourselves in love, it’s special. It’s worth pointing out precisely because it’s so uncommon. This year, I’ve found myself deeply affected a few times by films that take clear-eyed, adult looks at love of different types, at different points in the arc of a love affair. There’s a very good chance you’ll see “Blue Valentine” near the top of my list at the end of this year, and it’s because the film is brilliant about the way it captures the moments where love both begins and ends for a couple. It’s a brutal movie, but punctuated with moments of almost unbearable beauty, and that contrast sums up just how transitive love can be.
When I think of Ed Zwick, I think of two very different filmmakers. There’s Epic Zwick, the guy who makes films like “Glory” and “Legends Of The Fall” and “The Last Samurai” and “Defiance.” I’m not a big fan of Epic Zwick. I like “Glory,” but I don’t have the mad unreserved love for it that many people seem to, and the other films on that list don’t do much for me. The other Zwick is Sensitive Zwick, the guy who was behind “thirtysomething” and “My So-Called Life” and “Once and Again.” Sensitive Zwick is the guy who took David Mamet’s blistering “Sexual Perversity In Chicago” and turned it into a cuddly sitcom with Jim Belushi. That’s not easy. When you add screenwriter Charles Randolph to the mix, whose script for “The Life Of David Gale” is just mind-bogglingly bad, I must admit I was nervous walking into “Love and Other Drugs” tonight.
It easily exceeded my expectations, and I’d go so far as to say I was shocked by my response to the film. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Jamie Randall, a young man looking for his place in the world, content to coast by on good looks and an easy charm that gets pretty much every pair of panties he encounters to hit the floor. Bouncing from job to job, he’s the quiet shame of the family, where his brother Josh (Josh Gad) is a wild success because of the Internet company he just sold. It is, after all, 1996, and the film is set period for a reason. Jamie lands a job as a pharmaceutical rep for Pfizer, and when he starts the job, he’s not a very good salesman at all. He’s in charge of a certain sales area, and he reps Zoloft for the company at a time when Prozac is dominating the market. Bruce (Oliver Platt) is his field manager, and the first act of the film is basically just about Bruce trying to teach Jamie how to use his natural gifts to break into the sales field. Supporting players like Judy Greer and Hank Azaria make this section of the film fly by easily, and just when the film settles into a particular shape, Maggie Murdock, played by Anne Hathaway, walks into the room.
Simply put, this is the role Anne Hathaway will be remembered for so far. She’s done strong work before, and she’s proven to be a fairly adventurous actress, but this is one of those cases where someone finds the right piece of material and they tear into it with an appetite that redefines who they are as performers. Maggie is a sexually forward, emotionally distant, socially aggressive artist who Jamie meets in a doctor’s office. At first, they seem perfect for each other. These aren’t relationship people. These aren’t people who care about love. These are people who connect on a carnal level first, and both Hathaway and Gyllenhaal throw themselves into the roles. The connection between them is believable at first because of the sheer movie star beauty of the both of them onscreen. Gyllenhaal’s all grown up these days, and the odd mopey young man energy that marks the early work in his career is gone now. The two of them are incendiary in their sex scenes, and the film maintains this light, somewhat naughty tone for about the first half.
Maggie’s got one issue I haven’t mentioned yet, though. The reason she’s in that doctor’s office, something that’s stated pretty much the first moment she steps onscreen, is that she’s got early onset Parkinson’s. That one thing defines so much of the rest of Maggie’s behavior and the way she approaches human contact of any kind is with a wall, an intentional distance. It’s a showboat role, and instead of playing it as a series of big dramatic moments, Hathaway lets that one basic truth inform everything. There’s no big moment because there’s no off moments. She is so interesting, so angry and sexy and strong and vulnerable and moving and infuriating that even when the script stumbles (and it does), the attraction and the intimacy that evolves between the two of them is understandable. It’s real. The film takes its time over the course of the second act to let something authentic happen between these characters, and while the film can’t answer the big question of why people fall in love in general, it absolutely answers the question of why Jamie Randall falls in love with Maggie Murdock, and it answers it in a way that rings true.
There are some focus issues to the film, but it’s impressive that they never turn it into a movie about Parkinson’s or a movie about suffering or a movie about some miracle ending. It’s a surprisingly small-scale movie all things considered. The film has some fun with the moment that took place in pop culture when Pfizer first introduced Viagra, and Jamie’s job becomes a rocket ride. That’s all smoke and mirrors, though, and what ultimately matters in this film is the way Zwick and his co-writer Randolph, working from Jamie Reidy’s book “Hard Sell: The Evolution Of A Viagra Salesman,” have bent the typical Hollywood romance and somehow come up with something uncommonly moving.
“Love and Other Drugs” screened as the opening night of the AFI Fest by Audi, and will open in theaters everywhere November 24.