Until checking its Wikipedia entry, I had no idea that Love and Other Drugs (IMDB) was based on a non-fiction book, Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, by Jamie Reidy, who, like the Jamie Randall character in the film (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), worked as a pharmaceutical rep. That detail provides a slightly clearer motivation for setting the film in the 1990s, an aspect of the film I found fascinating (and will return to momentarily). I haven’t read the book, but it seems that its primary purpose was to blow the whistle on some of the more unsavory practices of the pharmaceutical industry. Although there are a number of scenes that satirize Big Phrama, the film seems less assured when it so earnestly depicts the romance between Jamie and Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway) primarily as a means for Jamie to enter belatedly into adulthood. Although Maggie is also depicted as vulnerable, the story seems in places to use Maggie’s diseased body as a means for allowing Jamie to discover his better self (he and his brother, who made millions off of medical software, are both depicted as overgrown children).
The romance plot does have some nice moments. Edward Zwick (thirtysomething, Courage Under Fire) has good storytelling chops. The film uses Maggie’s artwork, including a video project where she and Jamie record their bedroom conversations, relatively well in order to explore the emotional vulnerabilities of the characters, but it was often difficult to see the characters as anything other than types: the haunted artist and the overgrown (but sensitive) playboy.
Instead, I found myself focusing on the treatment of the 1990s boom era. Nearly a decade after Clinton’s presidency ended, it’s becoming increasingly possible to view “the nineties” as a distinct historical era, with its booming economy, based in part on the exploding dotcom and pharmaceutical industries. Jamie’s brother is a software millionaire, and Jamie hands out favors–umbrellas, pens, even to the point of arranging sexual trysts–to doctors in order to entice them to prescribe his drugs rather than his competitors’. Although Jamie recites the benefits of Pfizer drugs–fewer side effects, better results–it’s clear that he doesn’t really believe his own pitch and doesn’t especially care. Jamie’s career is given a boost when he lands the opportunity to sell Viagra (it’s almost impossible to write a sentence about Viagra without at least one bad pun), and the film treats Viagra as a symbol of the excessiveness of 90s culture. At the same time, aspects of that excess, including the wild parties that are fueled by the drugs and drug company profits, are enticing and energizing, with the result that the nineties become the object of ambivalent nostalgia for the film (this is expressed musically as well through the use of The Spin Doctors, among others).
The depictions of the pharmaceutical industry–and its cynical emphasis on profits over care–did resonate with some of the current debates about health care. Although the pharmaceutical reps, driven by the drug companies themselves, are probably the chief “villains” in this equation, the doctors (including Dr. Knight, played by Hank Azaria) are usually depicted as complicit in the system itself. I don’t have time to track it down now, but at least one review compared Love and Other Drugs to the similarly topical Up in the Air (my review) and that comparison seems about right, although I liked the latter film quite a bit more. Both movies map aspects of romantic drama onto workplace settings that engage with, or at least anticipate, our troubled economic times. Although Love and Other Drugs primarily tracks Jamie’s transition into an adult capable of unselfishly loving and supporting Maggie, it is also engaged with topical issues in a relatively thoughtful way.
Update: Another film that has this topical vibe is David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network. For a sharp analysis of the film, check out Tama Leaver’s recent column at FlowTV.