After a first-rate script, likability is arguably the next most important factor in mounting a successful romantic movie. Whether it's a breezy comedy or substantive drama, we must - to quote Sally Field - "really, really like" the two leads if we're going to invest ourselves in their relationship and weather the inevitable obstacles that threaten their happiness over the course of a feature-length film. Two actors who possess hefty likability quotients are Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway (despite her grating turn as one of this year's Oscar hosts), yet all that acquired goodwill goes down the tubes in 'Love & Other Drugs,' the not-very-charming, often dreary romantic-comedy-that's-really-more-of-a-drama from writer-director Edward Zwick. The reason? Both stars play two extremely unlikable people, and not even Gyllenhaal's patented puppy dog eyes and Hathaway's fresh-faced beauty (not to mention her omnipresent breasts) can disguise the unsavory qualities that distinguish their respective characters. The only reason we even mildly care whether they get together in the end is because they deserve each other.
Like many films that deal with illness, 'Love & Other Drugs' hid the fact in its preview that it explores the ramifications of early onset Parkinson's Disease, preferring instead to focus on the cheerier aspect of a womanizing pharmaceutical sales rep peddling Viagra during the drug's early heyday. So who knew what looked like an upbeat sex comedy and social satire really would be an often dour portrait of two bickering yuppies dealing with an incurable affliction and the strain it puts on a burgeoning relationship? Now, believe me, I prefer my rom-coms to have some guts, but 'Love & Other Drugs' can't walk the comedy-drama tightrope without continually falling off the wire. Cute one minute, and veering off into 'Love Story' and 'Terms of Endearment' territory the next, the film can't decide what it wants to be and what type of audience it wants to court. The result is a muddled mishmash that never gels.
Of course, if the characters were more likable, we just might find the story a bit more palatable and involving, but it's difficult to muster much sympathy for someone who wanders around with such a huge chip on her shoulder. Maggie (Hathaway) understandably struggles with her diagnosis and how the debilitating disease will affect her life and relationships, but we rarely see her softer side, and even when we do, it's laced with too much cynicism and anger. Jamie (Gyllenhaal) seems more dimensional, but his actions and motivations often feel programmed and predictable. Strangely, the film's best moments have nothing to do with the romance at all, but rather deal with the ins and outs, stratagems and wiles of drug salesmen who must fend off and outfox the competition as they woo, schmooze, and bribe medical staff to get their product in the pipeline. Those scenes possess a measure of wit and style the romantic episodes lack.
And without wit and style, 'Love & Other Drugs' relies on skin and titillation to pique interest. Both Gyllenhaal and Hathaway bare their chests and bums, and though they're attractive specimens, their anatomy isn't enough to overcome plot and character deficiencies. They make an attractive couple, generate decent chemistry, and act with typical aplomb, but nothing they do is especially memorable. While it's initially refreshing to see Hathaway portray a chick with some attitude, the screenplay doesn't allow her much growth, and at times she overacts to compensate. Gyllenhaal remains in check, but his one-note performance simply becomes tiresome over time. Oliver Platt, Josh Gad, Hank Azaria, Jill Clayburgh, and George Segal all try to inject some life into the proceedings, but can only do so much.
'Love & Other Drugs' could use a dose or two of its own medicine to firm up its story and refine its focus to make it more appealing. This is one of Zwick's limpest efforts, despite an attractive cast and interesting subject matter, which proves just how quickly an uneven script and unlikable characters can kill a romantic movie's mood.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Love & Other Drugs' arrives on high-def packaged in a standard Blu-ray case. The BD-50 dual-layer disc features a video codec of 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio track. Following a digital copy promo and three trailers, the full-motion menu with music pops up.
'Love & Other Drugs' sports a nice-looking 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer that possesses a natural, film-like appearance. Faint grain supplies a smattering of texture, while solid contrast lends the image vibrancy and a bit of dimensionality. An occasional soft shot crops up now and then, yet never compromises the high level of clarity that distinguishes this disc. Colors don't pop, but the hues on display possess appropriate degrees of brightness and saturation, and black levels remain deep and lush throughout. Good shadow delineation keeps crush at bay, while background details are always discernible.
Close-ups are razor sharp, showing off pores and hair follicles well, and flesh tones, from Gyllenhaal's bronze complexion to Hathaway's alabaster skin, are perfectly pitched. Best of all, no digital doctoring, such as edge enhancement or noise reduction, muck up the works, and such issues as banding and pixelation are absent, too. This is another stellar rendering of a recent release from Fox that will please the film's fans.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is solid as well, but there aren't any bells and whistles to make it really stand out. Wide dynamic range allows the highs plenty of freedom without risk of distortion, and the low tones exhibit a nice richness that adds necessary weight to the sound field. Surround activity is somewhat limited, although a rain sequence wraps around well and provides a sense of immediacy. Front channel stereo separation is distinct, and dialogue is always well prioritized and easy to understand. James Newton Howard's music score enjoys fine presence and depth, and fills the room well, and no imperfections, such as surface noise, clutter the audio. Like most dialogue-driven films, this track won't test the limits of your system, nor will it tempt you to show it off to your friends, but it suits the movie well and seamlessly enhances it.
A few extras round out the disc, but - like the movie - none are particularly substantive.
'Love & Other Drugs' is like a lot of real-life relationships - fraught with conflict, bickering, and misunderstandings, and punctuated by episodes of passionate sex - but familiarity often breeds contempt, and this choppy, unsatisfying romantic comedy-drama never lives up to its potential. Above average video and audio eases the pain, but the extras are as vapid as the film. This is one to rent and decide for yourself.