‘Love and Other Drugs’ puts a romantic spin on Big Pharma

BEFORE ED ZWICK became Hollywood's most solemn director (subjects include the Holocaust, American imperialism, blood diamonds), he made a movie called "About Last Night."

This was a funny, likable comedy about singles in Chicago, a kind of freewheeling, pre-Apatow ensemble piece about young men and women trying to work out the rules of dating during the go-go 1980s.

You can see Zwick trying to recover that spirit in "Love and Other Drugs," a movie about a hustling salesman named Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) who takes a job at Pfizer in the mid-1990s just as drug marketing takes off, and just as Pfizer hits the streets with Viagra.

And just as the salesman falls hard for Maggie (Anne Hathaway), a young woman who wins his admiration and finally his heart by professing to be just as interested in string-free, casual sex as he.

And, oh yes, there will be shagging. "Love and Other Drugs" is noteworthy for the way it reintroduces skin and sex to mainstream movies. Jamie and Maggie have an intensely physical relationship, and Zwick is determined to be candid about it. So are Gyllenhaal and Hathaway, who are bravely naked for long stretches.

It's not "Last Tango in Paris," but it's fairly eye-opening by the squeamish standards of latter-day Hollywood.

As the couple moves from casual sex to something more serious, they both confront Maggie's illness - she's in the early stages of Parkinson's disease, and her sublimated terror at what lies ahead complicates the evolving romance. Her professed dislike of commitment starts to look more like fear.

You can see what Zwick and co-writer Marshall Herskovitz were after here, something about the painful irony of a Big Pharma culture that pours enormous resources into erection medication, while diseases like Parkinson's get far less attention and money.

It's a great idea, but one that never really takes shape in "Love and Other Drugs," though the movie takes time to dramatize the everyday realities/absurdities of the health-care industry in its current form. (Hank Azaria has a substantial supporting role as a general practitioner trying to balance the needs of patients and the pressures of Big Pharma reps like Jamie).

Something about the health-care critique doesn't jibe with the love story, which doesn't always jibe with the comic tone - it's a Viagra movie, and yes, a character is rushed to an emergency room with the proverbial four-hour boner.

The unwelcome fits of comedy are often supplied by Josh Gad as Jamie's brother. He's the Jonah Hill type who occupies the wacky roommate slot that apparently all contemporary comedies must fill.

On the other hand, no one will complain that Zwick made room for the late Jill Clayburgh as Jamie's mom, in what will end up as her penultimate movie role.

Love and Other Drugs

Directed by Edward Zwick. With George Segal, Gabriel Macht, Brenna Roth, Hank Azaria, Judy Greer, Oliver Platt, Anne Hathaway, Jaimie Alexander, Katheryn Winnick, Jake Gyllenhaal. Distributed by 20th Century Fox.

Running time: 1 hours, 53 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for strong sexual content, nudity, pervasive language, and some drug material).