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Placebo Effect 

This prescription of love story and Viagra history is not what the doctor ordered.

click to enlarge “I can't quit you.” Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal debate pharmaceuticals and product placement in the awful “Love and Other Drugs.”
  • “I can't quit you.” Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal debate pharmaceuticals and product placement in the awful “Love and Other Drugs.”

It's hard to say what compelled Edward Zwick, established master of the movie epic, to aspire to be the next Jason Reitman. Sadder still is that he failed so miserably with “Love and Other Drugs,” about a pharmaceutical salesman (Jake Gyllenhaal) who falls for one of his doctor's patients (Anne Hathaway).

Zwick has had no problem rousing audiences with stories of men wielding fearsome phallic symbols in the past, and perhaps that's what drew him to a movie about Viagra. But this time the maker of “The Last Samurai” and “Defiance” delivers an impotent mixture of broad humor and schmaltz, spiced with a fair amount of R-rated sex. His leads look great, but the movie has surprisingly little to say about its other hook — the investigation of fancy therapeutic drugs and their proliferation during the mid-1990s.

Things get off to a bumpy start when we meet the protagonist, Jamie Randall (Gyllenhaal), whose reputation as a smooth and loquacious electronics salesman is conveyed in a montage set to “Two Princes” by the Spin Doctors. It's probably the lamest, most banal track you could select for a movie montage outside the “Macarena,” which shows up a couple of scenes later for a sales convention montage where Jamie learns to rep for Pfizer.

At least that song is closer to the right year. It's 1996 and Jamie is selling boom boxes, the 1986 kind with cassette decks, next to plasma televisions, which look like the 2006 kind. Hollywood has long displayed a disinterest in accuracy when looking back at recent decades, but these minor examples of laziness are omens of greater problems to come.

Jamie, we are shown, is something of a black sheep in his family. His parents (George Segal and Jill Clayburgh) are successful doctors, but he flunked out of medical school. His slovenly brother, Josh (Josh Gad? Why not Zach Galifianakis or Seth Rogen?), suggests he go into pharmaceutical sales, because, he says, Jamie can make more than $100,000 a year doing it. But wait a minute. Josh recently took his internet startup public to the tune of $140 million. Why doesn't he invite his big brother into the business? Oh, this is why: When things go wrong with Josh's ditzy wife, he moves in with Jamie. Cue odd couple incidents, like Josh spying Jamie's new girlfriend, Maggie Murdock (Hathaway), in the nude. Like much of the movie's
“humor,” the setups are long and involved while the payoffs fall flat.

Jamie's introduction to Maggie, a patient of his main client, Dr. Stan Knight (Hank Azaria), is equally puzzling since Maggie is only attracted to him because of his looks and charm. Looks and charm also make her suspicious. But she's also suspicious of Jamie's lasting interest because she has a rare disease that becomes the backbone of the movie's second half. What does it have to do with Viagra? Good question, and there are plenty more where that came from. 

Why does Jamie's partner (Oliver Platt) care if Jamie gets sent to the big leagues of a Chicago market? Why does Jamie care? Why does Jamie have meaningless sex with lots of random women? OK, don't answer that one. Why does it matter that he has a nemesis (Gabriel Macht, as a smarmy Prozac dealer) when the release and dominance of Viagra will blow all competition out of the waiting room? Are these just elements Zwick and his team found in similar comic dramas and had to have in their own, or is this just one long product placement for Pfizer?

“Love” does have one clever idea. When Jamie is trying to win his first Zoloft account he ditches his rival's Prozac samples in a nearby dumpster, where they are found by a local vagrant. A few similar episodes later the vagabond has tidied himself up a bit, hanging around the dumpster in a reasonably clean suit and tie to ask Jamie if he can have a few more samples. He's got a job interview of his own to go to. After this point the movie went along its merry way of dramady and steamy sex scenes, forgetting the bum altogether. Follow that bum, not the cheesy sales guy. There lies genuine satire, mirth and drama, ideas that could do our growing dependence on serotonin modulators justice. (R) 113 min.

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