Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal star in "Love & Other Drugs." (David James, 20th Century…)
Finally, after years of suffering through Hollywood's predictable pap, sentimental mush, boring bromances and mean girl clichés, comes a love story that is actually worth falling for, with Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal excellent at steaming up the screen in "Love & Other Drugs."
The trick is that in director Ed Zwick's world, love hurts. It may be funny, charming, poignant and sexy, and "Love & Other Drugs" is all that too, but at some point it stings like astringent on a fresh scrape. Like real life, or at least real enough to make for a very nice change of pace in the romantic comedy world.
The movie is set in Pittsburgh, which has never looked as good as it does through cinematographer Steven Fierberg's lens, and is loosely based on "Hard Sell," Jamie Reidy's memoir of being a Viagra sales rep for Pfizer just as the potent little blue pill hit the market with its performance-enhancing promises. I say loosely because Reidy barely mentions a girlfriend, but Gyllenhaal's Jamie Randall shares equal time with Hathaway's Maggie, the funky 26-year-old artist who will be his undoing.
For the couple, it begins with a close encounter of the inappropriate kind, in a doctor's exam room with Jamie stealing a peek at one of Maggie's private parts, only to be cold-cocked by her a few minutes later when she learns he was not an intern, just a chump taking advantage of her northern exposure.
In the best opposites-attract tradition, they quickly move from making peace to making love of the passionate, clothes-ripping, the-floor-will-do-just-fine sort. Neither one has "long-term" in mind, which becomes the film's central dilemma. Most rom-coms spend their time trying to get to that first embrace (think "Sleepless in Seattle," Empire State Building, final scene), but "Love & Other Drugs" spends its time trying to get beyond it.
I don't mean to suggest that the movie is free from stereotypes; it is not. Jamie is your typical charming rogue driven by his baser instincts, always on the prowl for meaningless sex and making money. Maggie as a smart, beautiful artist living the bohemian life is a type too. She's also sick as it turns out, with a new life-altering diagnosis she's learning to cope with. What sets "Love & Other Drugs" apart is what it does next, using the couple's interplay as a way for their characters to deepen and get past the clichés to create something that is actually moving — a relationship, with all its conflicting needs and wants and desires.
If you're worried about Maggie's diagnosis being too much of a bummer, all I'll say is this is no "Love Story" sob fest. This is, however, Hathaway's movie. She delivers a performance easily as affecting as her emotionally bruised recovering addict in Jonathan Demme's fine " Rachel Getting Married," which earned her an Oscar nomination in 2009. Maggie may do it for her again, with Hathaway exposing herself, both body and soul, as she lets us inside this lushly intelligent, painfully self-aware heartbreaker of a girl.
In Gyllenhaal, she has a good match. He's a little like the ultimate Bridget Jones mash-up of Hugh Grant seduction and Colin Firth sweetness, so a complicated lot to take on. Together they sizzle whether they're spitting and sparring or rolling around naked — they do a lot of both. It's an intimacy that doesn't feel faked, or gratuitous, despite the fun "Saturday Night Live" had with it over the weekend with Hathaway hosting. Gyllenhaal, as the bad boy who's really a good guy, is better than he's been since his breakout in 2005's "Brokeback Mountain," in which Hathaway played his all-too-knowing Texas wife.
While Hathaway provides the film's heart, the guys are responsible for most of its mostly politically incorrect humor. Gyllenhaal has terrific comic timing and good partners in crime with the always-voluble Oliver Platt as Jamie's Tums-packing boss; older but still charming Hank Azaria as Jamie's best client, a Dr. Do Good who's turned into Dr. Feel Good; and a wickedly funny Josh Gad as Jamie's millionaire mess of a brother, a whiner of the top order. Suffice it to say that with those three, Viagra isn't the only blue pill in this movie.
With Zwick and his longtime creative collaborator Marshall Herskovitz putting the final polish on the screenplay, which began with Charles Randolph ("The Interpreter"), there are echoes of the emotional churn that made "thirtysomething" and "My So-Called Life" resonate so deeply across prime time years ago. In film, Zwick has mostly occupied himself with epic storytelling such as "Legends of the Fall," "Glory" and "Blood Diamond," with the romance of his 1986 rom-com "About Last Night" really just a distant (and not that great) memory.
Zwick is thankfully much more of a grown-up now in dealing with relationship entanglements. Somehow, between the epic and the intimate, between Hathaway and Gyllenhaal, love doesn't come easy, but with "Love & Other Drugs," at least you don't have to wait.