Sunday, December 5, 2010

At the Movies: (Diagnosing) Love and Other Drugs

When I first saw the trailers for Love and Other Drugs, I thought, oh, another romance to put on my must-see list. Identifying a new flick as a romance or a comedy prevents me from being disappointed. But it doesn't leave a lot of room for surprises, either.

Then I saw Chelsea Handler interview Anne Hathaway about Love and Other Drugs and found out that Anne's character has stage one Parkinson's disease. That threw me (although in retrospect I should've realized she had an illness, given the movie's title). I thought, this could go one of two ways. It can be one of those movies about a guy in love with a sick girl. Or, it can be really good.

Let's just say I was surprised.

Anne Hathaway shines as Maggie, an unflinchingly honest artist who challenges Pfizer drug salesman Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal), a playboy and chronic failure, at every step in their relationship, beginning at their first meeting in a Pittsburgh hospital exam room. (He catches a glimpse of her breast; she beats him over the head with her handbag, then snaps a Polaroid of him for an art project.) But they meet for coffee anyway, during the course of which Maggie erupts into a speech about why she, the woman, is supposed to reject Jamie's advances, all the while indicating that she does want to sleep with him via nonverbal cues. A little flummoxed but ultimately relieved, Jamie suggests that they just get on with it, which they do in the first of many unabashedly realistic sex scenes.

They talk. They fight. They have more sex. Before either of them knows what's happening, they fall in love.

We aren't always reminded of Maggie's condition. But sometimes (unrealistically timed with critical plot points, as one critic put it) we see her fingers trembling. I disagree with that critic, though. I think the trembling is selectively shown to signal that Maggie's spirit isn't bound by her Parkinson's. To me, the post powerful scene in the movie takes place when Jamie comes home during one of Maggie's particularly bad episodes. Maggie pours herself a generous drink and tells him about her terrible day, how the pharmacy was closed, even how she almost went home with a guy from the clinic. She doesn't look like herself either, a point she cuttingly mentions to Jamie in an attempt to scare him off. She's screaming, raging, utterly transformed from the charmingly awkward Anne we got to know in The Princess Diaries. Jamie leaves, only to return moments later after hearing her melt into hysterics over a dropped bottle. What makes this scene so heartbreaking is that we are as unprepared for it as Maggie and Jamie are, having been swept up along with them by their budding relationship.

Jamie lands Pfizer's coveted Viagra account, launching his career into the stratosphere. He takes Maggie to a pharmaceutical convention in Chicago, where someone notices her tremors and tells her about a Parkinson's convention across the street, where she can find out "what's really going on." She goes, connects with people who are going through everything she is, and texts Jamie to join her. He does, only to be waylaid by a man whose wife is a stage four sufferer. He unburdens himself about having to dress her and clean up her shit and tells Jamie to find himself a healthy girl. Then, as if stricken by his own honesty, he apologizes and walks away. You can tell that Jamie is troubled . . . and that he doesn't want to be. So, instead of distancing himself from Maggie and the inevitable crumbling of their relationship (as we suspect he is tempted to), he goes into overdrive trying to help her, dragging her to hospitals all over the country in search of better treatments. Maggie eventually snaps, declaring that he gets credit for his good guy act, but that it's over because she'd rather live her life then spend it hunting for a nonexistent cure.

They break up.

Jamie's career is better than ever. He beds industry bimbos and gets a promotion that requires him to move to Chicago. Then he runs into Maggie, who's on a date. And he realizes that everything in his life is wrong.

Fast forward to him speeding alongside her senior citizen-filled Canada-bound bus. So what if it's reminiscent of those cliched eleventh-hour airport movie scenes; everything comes into focus when he sticks his head out the window and calls out to her. The bus pulls over. She says she doesn't want to need him more than he needs her, but he says it's okay. Then we see them back in her loft in Pittsburgh and learn that Jamie's dropped out of the pharma rat race to return to medical school. Some may say it's a schmaltzy ending (such as the raucously laughing women sitting behind me who cackled, "'We're laughing and she's [yours truly] crying; what must she think of us?"), but I think it was perfect. Maggie didn't die and she didn't get better, and that's what made it realistic. Jamie's commitment to her proved that he wasn't a failure when it really counted, and that's what gave it its heart.

Well done.

No comments: