Friday, November 11, 2011

Sunglasses & Other Mistakes

Edward Zwick's Love & Other Drugs is many things.

Dopey comedy with aspirations to be a Judd Apatow movie. Weepy disease movie. Semi-explicit slice of erotica. Recent period piece involving the rise (pun intended) of Viagra.

But the last impression it leaves is:

Sunglasses commercial.

There are many ways to demonstrate directorial incompetence, and Zwick has dabbled in a lot of them over the years. The most egregious bit of directorial incompetence in Love & Other Drugs is when Jake Gyllenhaal's final "realization run" -- you know, the mad dash after the girl that kicks off the moment you realize you can't live without her -- is conducted primarily while he's wearing a pair of Rayban Wayfarer sunglasses.

You can't even see his eyes. Way to blunt the dramatic impact of a finale, Ed -- even if it is a weak, derivative finale.

Jake does take off those sunglasses once he finally catches up with Anne Hathaway. But before that, he runs here and drives there and flags down a bus on which she's riding, all while making sure his eyes are amply protected from harmful UV rays.

I've discussed before the thoughts of William Goldman, esteemed screenwriter, on the importance or lack thereof of "realistic" details in a script. His example is the protagonist being able to find a parking space right in front of the courthouse. Never happens to a person in real life, but in the movies, it's essential in order to get that character into the courthouse as soon as possible.

I think this falls into that category. Yes, most people probably wear sunglasses when they're driving on a bright day. But when you're chasing down the girl of your dreams, to keep from losing her? It's a distraction.

Now, I'm not entirely sure this was Ed's fault. It seems very likely that it was intentional product placement. I googled "Love & Other Drugs" and "sunglasses" and got a lot of discussion about Jake's Raybans from the movie. In that sense, I guess their usage had the intended effect.

But in the sense that I noticed them, and that it added one final miscalculation to an already schizophrenic movie, it probably wasn't the intended effect at all.

It would have been one thing if the sunglasses had been used thematically -- to indicate that this man is hiding his feelings from us, that he's somehow impenetrable. But that's not really the case. He's supposed to be a reformed lothario, and he does apparently struggle with intimacy, but he's gotten past all that already in the narrative. Yeah, that was taken care of in a semi-ridiculous scene where he's physically shaking -- a tasteless choice given that Hathaway's character has Parkinson's -- with nervousness over telling her he loves her. The instinct isn't bad, but the execution is all wrong -- Gyllenhaal way overplays it. Or Zwick overdirects it. Or both.

Actually, I liked parts of Love & Other Drugs -- significant parts. But I don't think I've seen a movie this all-over-the-map in awhile. One of its biggest structural missteps is to put one of its silliest comic set pieces after one of its heaviest dramatic moments. I'll give you a mild spoiler warning, and then I'll continue.

So one of the big issues between Hathaway's Maggie and Gyllenhaal's Jamie is that they can't have a relationship because she's got Parkinson's and she would eventually be totally dependent on him. If you're him, it's a situation you want to avoid if you have the luxury of being aware of it in advance. Of course, he's a good enough person that he doesn't avoid the relationship on these grounds -- she does, trying to prevent an emotional investment that would morally commit him to becoming her caretaker. Naturally, her original boundaries eventually fall and they get involved in a full-on relationship. However, after Jamie goes on a relentless crusade to explore cutting-edge ways of treating Parkinson's, Maggie realizes that he's doing this so he can have his cake and eat it too -- be with the woman he loves without being burdened by her physical maladies. He's not ready for the lifetime of responsibility that Parkinson's entails, and she breaks up with him. It's a heavy moment and there can be no confusion about the circumstances of their breakup.

Almost immediately afterward in screen time if not real time, he's at a so-called pajama party, where everybody is taking ecstasy (it's never said, but he's sucking on a lollipop, which is a pretty dead giveaway). He takes Viagra in order to sleep with two women, and falls victim to one of its most notorious side effects -- "an erection lasting longer than four hours" (or so the ads now describe them). His brother -- played by Jonah Hill knockoff Josh Gad, who shows up repeatedly for lewd comic relief -- drives him to the hospital. The scene is punctuated by a dopey comedy score, and in one particularly idiotic joke, Jamie's brother grabs his erect penis, mistaking it for the car's gear shift.

Okay, so one moment everybody's mourning the reality that sick people are a burden, and one should avoid entanglements with them if it's morally feasible, and the next moment the movie is making jokes about perma-stiffies? It just doesn't work. It would be one thing if they played the pajama party as Jamie's "rock bottom" moment, but the scene doesn't have that tone. It has the tone of a goofy comedy set piece.

What I think may be most troubling about Love & Other Drugs is that it also requires Anne Hathaway to gallivant around in the nude for large sections of its running time. The same can be said for Gyllenhaal, but not really -- nude for a guy means showing his butt. Nude for a woman means exposing her breasts -- and likely her butt as well, but we all know that butts are comical more than they are truly erotic.

Hathaway had not previously been so cavalier about doffing her clothes, and one would like to think that the movie that prompted her to do so would more directly require it. Intrinsically, there is nothing about a romance between a pharmaceutical rep and a Parkinson's patient that requires either of them to spend any amount of time naked. There actually is some potential need for nudity in a movie about Viagra, but that's a thread of this story that doesn't ultimately have much to do, thematically, with their relationship -- or really anything else. Besides, only the pre-Viagra penis, in its flaccid state, would pass the ratings board.

I watched Love & Other Drugs last night because I'd heard it was a bit of an unruly hybrid of different genres and themes, and I thought that might be interesting. I guess it's not too surprising I found it off-putting instead.

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