With Love and Other Drugs, Ed Zwick takes a smoke break from his usual brand of advocacy filmmaking -- Glory, Blood Diamond and The Last Samurai -- to return to the conventional dramedy sandbox he briefly played in with the 1986 Demi Moore/Rob Lowe heart-string strummer, About Last Night.
Both films feature attractive, though vacuous, leading men plucked unexpectedly from the comforting rut of commitment-free sex by that one-in-a-million girl who makes them realize how plastic they are. The respective girls are whip-smart, gorgeous and shielded by a veneer of self-assurance that belies their simultaneous yearning and fear of true happiness. Their plots are roller coaster rides of rapturous sex punctuated by emotional conflicts as our scorching hot couple's sidewinder their way to some sort of crowd-pleasing contentment.
But, About Last Night had the advantage of being-based on a Mamet play, so despite the film's conventional nature, the writing had the punch that the famously un-PC playwright is known for ("You know something Joan? If you didn't have a pussy there'd be a bounty on your head.") which manifested itself in the often brutally misogynistic, and often funny, Bernie (Jim Belushi). Still, even with Mamet behind the sometimes-acerbic dialogue, Ed Zwick massaged enough saccharine moments out of his adaptation of Sexual Perversity in Chicago to please the Harlequin types. In a way, that film mapped out the sort of raunchy/serious romantic comedy schematic that would be later utilized by the likes of Judd Apatow.
Love and Other Drugs doesn't have the same kind of edge to its script -- not a shock, given the lack of Mamet -- which was adapted by director Zwick and a duo of co-writers from the non-fiction novel Hard Sell: The Evolution of Viagra.
The story begins in the mid-1990s -- to the strains of The Spin Doctors -- following Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal) a carefree lady killer who, after losing his stereo store job due to a dalliance with the manager's girlfriend, takes on a career as a pharmaceutical rep for Phizer, aggressively pimping Zoloft to doctors already sold on Prozac. He's mentored in the (often questionable) ways of selling name-brand drugs by Winston (Oliver Platt) and when he ingratiates himself enough with a burned out doctor (Hank Azaria), he passes himself off as an intern during the examination of one of his patients, a striking, early-onset Parkinson's victim named Maggie (Anne Hathaway).
Maggie is none too pleased to learn of Jamie's ruse -- she wallops him upside the head; he tries to lay a line on her -- but Jamie is taken by the fiercely smart and disarmingly beautiful Maggie and uses his salesman's guile to purloin her number from the administrative assistant he's screwing to quickly find himself in Maggie's bed, who seemingly only wants a good booty call, though she's really just commitment-phobic due to her disease.
But what starts out an apparently perfect, guiltless, sexual arrangement begins to complicate itself when Jamie realizes that Maggie is the girl of his dreams. Toe-curling sex with a smart, funny, ethereally gorgeous woman will do that.
Predictably, the narrative plays Jamie's rising-star status selling the new fangled Viagra -- as he works for a promotion that will take him to Chicago -- against the blooming affection he's coaxing from the guarded Maggie and her reticence to let her condition hold Jamie back from success.
Director Zwick guides the familiar narrative ebbs and troughs of their excited attraction and conflicts with a sure hand, and even gets in a few nods to political advocacy as Maggie buses elderly people to Canada for cheaper prescription drugs and doctors prove routinely welcoming of the financial largesse of cut-throat pharmaceutical salesmen. He certainly captures, with some fine cinematography, the heat of Jamie and Maggie's budding passion with a couple of scenes that find Gyllenhaal and Hathaway baring almost all in ways intimate, emotional and wonton. These sequences really imbued the film with an aura of attraction, as Jamie and Maggie find a gratification in each other that makes them forget, in those moments, that the rest of the world even exists.
The performances from Gyllenhaal and Hathaway go a long way in making Love and Other Drugs as engaging as it is. Their chemistry was honed in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain and is really the thing that gives a pulse to the otherwise over-worn plotting and the stock orbiting characters, like Jamie's boorish, internet millionaire younger brother, Josh (Josh Gad), a role that seemed written for Jack Black. Gad appropriately Black's it up in an attempt to make the comedy side of the equation connect but to little effect. As charming as its leads may be the comedic elements fall flat while not being particularly imaginative. Viagra would have to figure into at least one gag in a movie about a Viagra salesman and, in that, Love and Other Drugs did not disappoint.
But, ultimately, the energy of Gyllenhaal's and Hathaway's performances, full of charm, depth and emotional complexity -- helped in part by some adequate writing -- is enough to keep Love and Other Drugs elevated slightly above its entirely conventional genre brethren.
And Anne Hathaway gets naked.
Not Too Fast
Faster started out strong. Anytime you give me an early scene with Dwayne Johnson walking into a telemarketing office like the Terminator and blowing Courtney Gaines's brains out, it gets my attention, because, hey, The Rock just blew Malachai's brains out. Not to mention the weirdly haunting Clint Mansell score that immediately caught my ear. In fact, with guys like Mansell on the score and some interesting casting with Billy Bob Thornton, Maggie Grace, Moon Bloodgood and Carla Gugino, it looked like the creative team behind Faster just might know what they were doing.
Nowhere more than casting Johnson as James Cullen, a paroled ex-con bent on revenge for the death of his brother. Johnson seems the natural heir to the '80s action tough guys of the past and he's spent too much time making family films and bad comedies (The Other Guys, notwithstanding). Take The Rock, give him a mission of vengeance, a gun and a jaw-droppingly bad ass, black Chevelle, then wind it up and watch it go. That should work.
And, at first, it did. As Faster opens it takes a near comic-book tone, beginning the story as Cullen is paroled from prison (after years of killing prisoners to stay alive? OK.) and embarks on a journey to avenge the death of his brother at the hands of a gang who double crossed them after a heist 10 years previous. Working from a list, Cullen hunts down the crew who killed his brother and put a bullet in his head that he miraculously survived, taking them out one by one, while a drug-addict detective (Thornton) follows the bloody breadcrumbs. Add in a yoga master/professional assassin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Faster starts out like a weird, quasi-exploitation flick that looks like it could work.
Then it started to take itself seriously.
Director George Tillman (Soul Food), working from a script by Joe and Tony Gayton, shifts the tone from superhero-tinged revenge picture to a darker tale of redemption and Faster loses speed because of it. He never really finds an organic balance between the two tones. A good example of that was the murder of Cullen's brother. As these two muscle-bound guys are held to their knees by the rival crew, one of the gang coaxes the location of the loot from James in order to save his brother's life. Of course, one of the gang slits his brother's throat anyway, but when the faces of the rival gang are revealed to be a bunch of nerdy-looking middle aged white guys -- and a "scary" black dude -- any dramatic investment the film might have earned just becomes funny.
The narrative torque almost hits idle as the film delves into Thornton's plot thread of absent-fatherism and his estranged wife (Bloodgood) which seem awkwardly shoehorned into the main story, while the utter incompetence of the police in apprehending Cullen lead to a couple of red-herring chases that serve to delay the inevitable -- on top of the added character depth this flick doesn't need. Or is, at least, more than it needs. What started out as a film that looked like it might take some fun, weird risks became decidedly safe in the end, draining any sense of surprise by the time it gets to the climactic moral choice that Cullen must make.
Johnson delivers on all the qualities required of the role (iron jaw line, hugeness) and gets into a few good fights, but for some reason the action in Faster felt muted. I like Johnson as an actor, he's interesting to watch and has screen charisma, but he's there for the mayhem and the script doesn't have enough of it.
Thornton brings a little bit of his famous wash out Santa to the role of Slade Humphries--wearing his degeneracy like a cloak for his genuine regrets while trying to bond with a fat kid drew the parallel -- but for the most part it feels like he's phoning it in. Thornton is still cool, though, and gives Slade the countenance of a tattered, dirty oil rag. But, for all the effort the film expends on character development, there really isn't anyone to really care about.
Faster should have stuck to the basics instead of trying to be something more than it's pulpy conceit can support. And if it had have shaved off 15 minutes of subplots it might have even lived up to its name.
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