Alison Wilde reviews Love and Other Drugs / 3 February 2011
Love and Other Drugs Directed by Edward Zwick and written by Edward Zwick, Charles Randolph and Marshall Herskovitz, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway. It went on general release in November 2010 and is coming to DVD and Blu-ray on 1 March, 2011.
It looks like its disability season again! Over the past three weeks there has been a spate of disability/illness related films at cinemas including Uncle Boonmee can remember his past lives, The King’s Speech and Love and Other Drugs. Spoiled for choice I decided to review Love and other drugs, not because it was the best (which would have to be Uncle Boonmee, as odd as the film may be) but because Love and other drugs featured, uncommonly, a young woman as a leading disabled character (Maggie Murdock, played by Ann Hathaway) and it dealt directly with uncomfortable issues of relationships and ‘normal life’ expectations.
I chose this film because it features a female character with an impairment in a leading storyline. Although disabled women are more conspicuous than they used to be in film and television content, I can’t say that the quality has improved a great deal, notwithstanding the way-after-the-watershed Cast Offs and occasional films such as Snowcake.
Given that Maggie’s impairment is Parkinson’s Disease, I fully expected a modern day interpretation of Love Story (1970) – emphasising the heft of tragedy that so often characterises depictions of progressive conditions – but this portrayal, as a studio film, seemed to take a different approach. Not that I went to see it as a ‘disability film’. In all truth I didn’t know it was – it was really the only choice at a multiplex when me and my daughter wanted to go to the pictures on a spectacularly grim day. I stubbornly refused her pleas to see Little Fockers for a third time (as much as I enjoy the De Niro-Stiller double act) and this seemed to be the best alternative, given the circumstances.
So it was something of surprise to find that Hathaway was playing a young woman who has early onset Parkinson’s Disease, especially as the film seemed to be aimed at a younger ‘mainstream’ audience. It was marketed as a heart-warming romantic comedy to get us through the harsh winter days, providing no hint of one of its major themes in any of its advertising. It was unsurprising then that we found ourselves surrounded by 16- and 17-year old young women, many of whom seemed to be having conversations on Facebook or with each other as they watched the film.
The conversations they were having in the toilets afterwards were even more intriguing. They too were a little shocked to see a film that was simultaneously a love story and a story of impairment and disability (yes, both). Specifically, they found it ‘a little hard to believe’ that someone as ‘fit’ as Jake Gyllenhaal, playing the male lead Jamie Randall, would seriously consider a relationship with someone who has Parkinson’s Disease, regardless of her beauty or the repeated hints of her rampant sexuality (without commitment). So far, so good then; impairment, disability, a woman as a leading disabled character, sex, and the frequent appearance of Maggie’s breasts (ensuring a few more men in the audience than the average rom-com).
Even better, there were numerous references made to the power of health professionals and the drugs industries which mixed the film’s narrative up a little. (I found out later that the film and Jamie Randall’s character in particular was loosely based on a non-fiction book, Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman by Jamie Reidy).
Combining insights on the ruthlessness of drugs salesmen and medical professionals with the health aspects of Maggie’s story helped the screenwriters to create a (light) satire on the (1990s) pharmaceutical/medical industry. As well as adding more humour to the film, the lampooning of the relationship between drugs salesmen and medical professionals and their power also shaped a number of poignant scenes, a number of vignettes powerfully illustrated the consequences of inequalities in health care. For me this added extra power to minor details of the film. This was exemplified by Maggie’s desperation when she was unable to get her medication and most clearly underlined when Jamie’s expensive sports car overtakes her and a bus full of older people who regularly travel to Canada in order buy affordable drugs,
Zwick, the director, has broken new ground before in films and television and tends to create multi-dimensional characters that often face difficult moral issues. In the late 1980s, as a student with middle-class aspirations, I was an avid fan of Zwick’s television drama thirtysomething, a legacy my daughter lives with after being named after one of its leading characters Hope Steadman (Mel Harris).
Although he is perhaps best known for tackling issues in an intelligent (liberal) manner, he makes some disappointing casting decisions, having a nasty habit of employing non-disabled actors, Anne Hathaway in this and Sean Penn as a parent with learning difficulties in I Am Sam. He also received criticism for casting in Glory, a film about 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a regiment of African American men, yet told from the point of view of a white commanding officer.
So most importantly then, how was Maggie represented? The hackneyed story of her tragic decline, her boyfriend’s heroism, and the cliché of love conquering all was not entirely absent. But, the narrative played against these expectations without wading (too much) in schmaltz. Both characters were presented as active agents in their own lives, with faults and insecurities and most importantly perhaps as equally needy and interdependent.
Despite my resentment of their ‘ideal’ bodies it was good to see a disabled character enjoying a busy sex life and even better to see impairment symptoms such as tremor being depicted (unsensationally) within these scenes. It was also refreshing to see attention to detail in struggles with disabling barriers, ranging from tablet case tops, hard to open packaged food and long waits at the hospital.
Although I found this scene slightly excruciating and rather cheesy, perhaps the rarest and most valuable part of the narrative comes when Maggie discovers and draws strength from a large group of other disabled people who are telling their stories. Her identification with other disabled people acts as a pivotal moment in both Maggie and Jamie’s lives, magnifying differences in their approaches to impairment and disability.
By the end of the film, if Maggie’s impairment is used to convey any moral meaning it is a message of the need for respect – of love that is mutual and based on recognition of intersecting needs and interdependency. In the closing scenes Jamie argues that, rather than seeing her as a project to be cared for to redeem him from his vacuous, shallow and exploitative lifestyle, his interest in her is because she is able to love him despite his limitations. ‘We all have needs’.
I would recommend this film because of the way it represents disabled women. Most of the performances were good but it may have been even more engaging if it had featured less well known faces. It’s a pleasant enough ‘rainy day’ sort of a film but beyond all this it’s art was flimsy and erratic, and I learned nothing new.