Single Take: Charlie Lyne on “Love and Other Drugs”

The director of Beyond Clueless and Fear Itself on how the Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway starrer changed his relationship to cinema.

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‘What was your favorite part?’ asked my mother, somewhere between the exit aisle and the bus stop, at the end of every childhood cinema trip. Later, as a teenager, smugly satisfied with my newfound ability to evaluate movies according to a more nuanced set of criteria, I chuckled at the memory of this simplistic approach to film criticism. Now, as with so many other things with which the adolescent me took issue, I’m starting to think my mother had it right.

Increasingly, my view of what constitutes a worthwhile cinematic experience boils down to this: did I enjoy some part of it? And therefore, what was my favorite part? Where once I demanded aesthetic consistency and structural harmony from a movie, now I find myself looking only for choice moments and stimulating threads. Where once I responded to the news that Roger Ebert reviewed the 2008 indie drama Tru Love without watching it in its entirety by joining the whining online hoards in demanding an apology, now I wonder which other films might be better consumed only in part.

There are countless people, places and things I could credit with inspiring this change of heart, but the one that comes to mind is Love and Other Drugs, a largely forgotten Oscar season also-ran I watched on a rainy afternoon in January 2011, along with two friends who — to quote Ebert — hated hated hated it. As we walked back to Brixton station, they raged delightedly at its myriad failings and I laughed along, but a part of me was unable to entirely write the movie off.

Love and Other Drugs is a despicable film in many ways. Directed and co-written by Edward Zwick, it’s a movie for whom the mantra “treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen” is an unassailable truth of gender relations, for whom Mr. Skin constitutes a crucial marketing avenue, and for whom cynicism is interchangeable with charm. In other words, it’s a movie in which Josh Gad appears in a supporting role. Based on the memoir “Hard Sell” by real-life Pfizer rep Jamie Reidy, it’s one of a vanishingly small number of films about the (genuinely nauseous) evils of the pharmaceutical industry, though if anything, that renders its superficial riffs on the industry’s excesses even more impotent.

Perhaps the film’s most memorable quality is its zebra-stripe approach to tone. The first half of an overlong two-hour runtime is dedicated largely to Jake Gyllenhaal fucking anything with a pulse — a narrative preoccupation that featured heavily in the film’s pre-release marketing materials and lives on today in an abundance of high-resolution gifs pulled from the various scenes in which Anne Hathaway undresses (including a strong contender for the most odious meet-cute of all time, in which Gyllenhaal poses as a doctor’s intern to perv at Hathaway during a medical exam).

Shortly thereafter, the film takes a somewhat lurching turn for the sentimental, as the pair’s unstoppable romance hits the immovable object of Hathaway’s early-onset Parkinson’s. (It’s worth noting that Reidy’s book contains no such love interest, and no mention of Parkinson’s, suggesting that this element may have found its way into the film around the time it was first positioned as an awards contender.)

The resulting tonal juxtaposition (a scene in which Hathaway retreats into an all-consuming grief is immediately followed by another in which Gyllenhaal conceals an erection in a hospital waiting room) ultimately proved too jarring for Academy voters. But I’d argue it highlights the film’s central tension, namely the injustice of Hathaway’s diagnosis coming her way at 26. At that age, the film says, life should be full of fucking and fun, and the inevitable degeneration of the human body should be as far from the mind as possible. In other words: more hospital erections and fewer all-consuming griefs.

This poignant subversion of youth brought me to tears back in 2011, while my cohorts guffawed at Hathaway’s admittedly over-acted tremors. It all came to a head in a scene towards the end of the film, following a montage of experimental treatments and hopeless consultations, in which Hathaway chides Gyllenhaal for staking their relationship on his ability to cure her. “Don’t you want to get better?” comes his indignant reply, to which Hathaway — with agonising candor — responds: “Yes! Desperately! It’s not going to happen.”

There, in the cold snow beside a New England hospital, stand two human beings both confronted by the devastating indifference of time. They respond with the only two reactions I’ve ever managed in such circumstances: denial, and tortured, directionless acceptance. I’m crying now thinking about it, and I cried then, as my viewing companions snorted in derision at what to them were merely schmaltzy lines delivered by millionaires into the lens of a director long past his best. I didn’t care. It was my favourite part.

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Charlie Lyne is a filmmaker and film critic living in London. He writes for The Guardian and Sight & Sound. His work as a filmmaker includes Beyond Clueless (2014) and Fear Itself (2015). More information can be found here.

Single Takes is a regular column in which writers consider a film or work of personal resonance.

 

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