I arrived at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco to interview Ed Zwick just after I saw an early showing of Love and Other Drugs. A gaggle of handlers from Fox and the promotional company greeted me with a touch of skepticism and curiosity before introducing me. Their buzz of activity led me to look around for some evidence of a beefy security detail but if any were there, they were invisible.
Zwick launches into conversation quickly: "The public confessional is antithetical to real intimacy," he said describing one of the motivations for his new film Love and Other Drugs. Zwick is no intellectual lightweight. This may seem surprising for a man who just made a romantic comedy and has been responsible for thirtysomething and My So-Called Life and Once and Again. But Zwick has also created epics such as The Last Samurai, Defiance and Glory, and thus is adept in historical research and creating narratives on a broad scale that capture the struggles of heroic characters.
Indeed, he acquired his writer's chops working for Rolling Stone Magazine. Zwick majored in English at Harvard and came to San Francisco in 1973 to work for that magazine in its heyday. He told me that he had an office between Joe Eszterhas and Hunter S. Thompson, Hunter "barely paid any attention to me, but he did once shoot off a 45 in the office." This early journalistic experience, he told me, provided him with a strong skill set for setting a story, confronting deadlines, how to research and how to speak with primary sources, "whether it's going to Africa trying to figure out that story or going to historians or to the department of defense and the CIA."Love and Other Drugs is based on Jamie Reidy's book Hard Sell: The Evolution Of A Viagra Salesman. Zwick develops a love story from that book by understanding that the story of the techniques used to sell Viagra reveal something about the state of human relationships in our current epoch:
Zwick, who has "a healthy respect for what the genre of romantic comedy use to be," tries to restore some of the features and power of that genre in the film, by examining the pain and comedy present within the nuances of relationships set against a backstory on the commodification of drugs by big pharma.
In an age when everything seems to be about a quick fix, a pill, where the notion of relationships seem to be oddly reduced or even quantified in the social network way, the idea of the complexity of a relationship and it's dynamics, examining it in great depth seems all the more important.
Lying beneath the surface of this film is the juxtaposition of an intimate relationship wonderfully performed by Jake Gyllenhall (Jamie) and Anne Hathaway (Maggie) and the creation of drugs such as Viagra into must-have commodities. Both actors have a superb onscreen presence and the wonderful chemistry between them carries the film over the less well-developed secondary narrative line of the horrors of a pharmaceutical industry more concerned with profits, pizzazz and the price of their stock than saving lives.
The film takes place within the frame of the 1990's dot-com bubble and the pharmaceutical industry's life-style drug boom. Motivated in part by brotherly jealousy -- his little brother scores big in his first software company IPO -- Zwick's screenplay has Jamie propelled from a pre-med drop out to a super-star drug salesman by his realization that his charm can sell drugs. With respect to big pharma, Maggie's character is Jamie's polar opposite, a woman beset by early Parkinson's, who deftly self-manages her disease and the drugs she needs to keep it under control. He is a self-profit motivated charming salesman who will discover that he can have real feelings, she a deep feeling artist who eschews money and assists seniors on discount drug buying trips to Canada and who tries to avoid feeling anything. Each initially want the same thing, namely sex and passion without love; they each discover that unlike Viagra, love isn't something you arrives in the form of a pill, and neither does it wear off quite so easily -- most of the time. As happens to Jamie at one point, Viagra can lead to a prolonged erection that requires medical intervention, but alas, no so such intervention exists for falling in love.
What starts off as a lustful if not torrid affair where any hint of a future together seems non-existent or at least infinitely far off, their relationship gradually becomes complicated by genuine love and the question of how long they may have together, given Maggie's incurable disease. But, Love and Other Drugs is a romantic comedy, not a tragedy. Contemplating the state of the romantic comedy film, Zwick said that he found that the "depiction of men and women in film today and what really happens between men and women is less and less authentic." He felt that with this story he had an "opportunity to try to talk about the nuance of what is unique and yet what is universally relatable in how men and women find their way toward each other. " Indeed, Jamie and Maggie could have found their way to one another in a myriad of ways, but here, in Zwick's film, it is due to their mutual and complementary attraction through the societal interventions by the pharmaceutical industry who became deft at "creating a circle of manipulation and retroactive need" as the famously irascible Critical Theorists Adorno and Horkheimer put it in their essay "The Culture Industry."In terms of where his film fits within its genre and against the backdrop of our social network based culture today, he said that he "felt that the depiction of a more nuanced relationship was oddly radical" because relationships have begun to "form and now even exist within a public rather than private forum." Similarly, the drug industry has altered, if not perverted the relationship between the doctor and patient. Doctors choose the drugs they prescribe based more on what they can get from the pharmaceutical salesmen than what is best for their patients. Zwick said in reference to this:
The creation of a need for a drug and for a culture that then becomes dependent on drugs rather than say on health or preventive measures is bad. I think that the notion that solutions exist as a consumer sell rather than as a lifestyle or an understanding of the deeper implications of health is very pernicious, particularly when it is male centric. It's all about those things where research and development and testing and trials and marketing is geared more towards those things that will be most profitable rather than towards those things that are necessary for culture.
Zwick deftly manages all these nuances into a delightful, entertaining and often surprisingly genuine seeming film, but one that doesn't by all appearances seem to be anywhere as insightful as Zwick himself proves to be in person. Closer analysis of the structure of the film shows that Zwick means to make a positive social contribution and critique. Unfortunately, any critique remains buried within the structure deep in the shadows and won't likely be apparent nor even distracting given how brightly Gyllenhall and Haathway's performances shine. But the film is, after all, a romantic comedy. It aims just a bit higher than others in that genre today and by all accounts succeeds.