Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Oliver Platt, Jane Greer, Gabriel Macht, Hank Azaria, Josh Gad
Writers: Edward Zwick, Charles Randolph, Marshall Herskovitz, based on nonfiction book, The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman by Jamie Reidy
Director: Edward Zwick
Jamie Randall (Gyllenhaal) is a horndog slacker bouncing from job to job until he tries the lucrative world of pharmaceutical sales. He pays his dues, but approaches each medical office like it’s a singles bar, with people to charm into giving up what he wants from them (prescriptions, but he won’t pass up the sex, either). It’s the mid-’90s, Pittsburgh. There’s a competitor, Trey (Macht), who seems to have a lot of the area sewn up with Prozac vs. Jamie’s Zoloft, but he doesn’t give up. Meanwhile, after a meet-not-cute with a young Parkinson’s patient, Maggie (Hathaway), who exposes her breast to him in the doctor’s office, with Jamie failing to tell her he’s not, in fact, a doctor, they make up and start hooking up. Maggie’s disease and the fear of someone abandoning her because of it has kept her from getting close to anyone since the married Trey, and initially Jamie is okay with no strings sex. But just as his career starts taking off with the release of Viagra from his company, Pfizer, he finds he has feelings for Maggie.
The film then takes us through fairly familiar territory. He melts Maggie’s defenses and they start a serious relationship, with his competitive nature getting in the way to the point she feels he will fall out of love with her once he realizes there’s no cure. They go their separate ways, with him trying to enjoy the fruits of his blue pill labors with the kind of emotionless sex he used to have, and she does the same. It doesn’t take long before he realizes how much he misses her, leading to one of those dramatic gestures (he chases down her senior citizen bus with his Porsche until she relents and takes the big lug back) that doesn’t come off that great in Zwick’s hands. I think he wanted the gesture but didn’t want it to go too Hollywood, so it’s kind of muted. There seemed to be confusion in the motivation and execution for the scene.
The confusion permeates the film, which has good people and some intelligence here and there in the script but is ultimately not quite sure what it wants to be. The first two scenes are rather loud (tonally), with a silly seduction in the back of a stereo store, using a Spin Doctors hit to hit home what empty cultural era we’re in, and then we get an awkward family get-together with George Segal and Jill Clayburgh sadly underused, while fat, rich, boorish brother Josh (Gad) says vulgar things and offers Jamie the pharma job. Later, going through a divorce, Josh will become the horny, slovenly roommate character. He’s fine, though it’s hard to buy him as sharing any DNA with Gyllenhaal. It’s just that aside from the easy comedy (at one point Jamie catches him masturbating to a sex tape of Jamie and Maggie), it’s hard to figure out Josh’s purpose in the film. It seems to be that despite his grossness, he’s brokenhearted over his wife, and thus a deeper person than Jamie, who’s never loved anyone until Maggie, but his part isn’t written to make this clear, and when the subject is brought up, it’s already clear to the viewer that Jamie has feelings for Maggie.
The background of big pharma and the devious practices of their salesmen is touched on with an early training seminar as well as Oliver Platt’s mentor character, but Zwick seems unwilling to take a real stand. Most of the salespeople are loathsome, but Hank Azaria’s compromised doctor character is on shaky ground blaming them for his own choices. There’s a nice scene near the end where Jamie gets the coveted Chicago job he and Platt were trying for together. The congratulations soon give way to bitterness and anger from Platt, not out of envy or competition but because his family lives there and he’s heartsick from seeing so little of them over the years.
Hathaway holds little physical appeal for me, for whatever reason, but it should be noted there are a lot of sex scenes in the film, especially for what was packaged as a fairly standard romantic comedy. She does a good job with Maggie, who is by turns snide and supportive, exuberantly sexual and melancholy. Zwick and the writers cheat her a bit, sometimes taking shortcuts with a quick scene of her crying in the back room at her coffee shop job instead of a meaningful dialogue with her coworker, or having her make collages of the cute old people she hangs out with. These are signifiers that she’s more soulful and real than Jamie, who always has perfect hair and wears crisp clothes all the time, and that’s okay as far as it goes, but the film stops short of getting real with her Parkinson’s. One stranger at a convention that Jamie meets tells him how hard it is to care for his wife, now in Stage Four of the disease, and the man recommends Jamie get out while he can. When Jamie comes back for Maggie, we’re not sure why, aside from missing her. He says it’s because nobody ever made him feel that he was enough before, and that sounds fine, but it just made me think about his upbringing. As he explained, everyone always accepted the fact that he was selfish and didn’t really care about anyone else, but why is that? Why don’t we see anything from Segal or Clayburgh to show what damage has been done to Jamie, or better yet, what unused strength he might have inherited or learned that will make him stick with Maggie? Although not the kind of historical epic Zwick generally directs, it does bear his stamp of well-meaning and earnest but ultimately compromised vision. Gyllenhaal may bear some of the blame as well. He’s just fine as the handsome, shallow jerk, but deficiencies in either the script or his own talent prevent his transformation to a man of deep love and caring from being convincing.