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I heart the ’90s… A Belated Tribute to Love & Other Drugs’ Commercial Nostalgia, Now Available on DVD

March 3, 2011

Inspired by Anne Hathaway’s quips about artistic nudity during her desperately gamine turn as a host of the 2011 Academy Awards, I am finally posting my review of 2010’s Love & Other Drugs. The movie, now on DVD long enough to have been freshly forgotten, features one of Hathaway’s less tween-friendly turns—in addition to joining the increasingly popular movement (back) to ‘90s revival media.

Courtesy imdb.com

Despite the prodigious star-power shock waves caused by putting both Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhall in the same movie – or more to the point, mostly naked and on the same movie poster– Rottentomatoes.com gave Love and Other Drugs a resounding ‘splat’ rating. This, combined with a bevy of critics’ reviews declaring the movie—essentially—an intellectual and moral succubus, meant that I went into the film feeling understandably depressed for dwindling away my unemployment funds on yet another feel-good flop.

Contrary to my constructed expectations, the movie was awesome.

At once entertaining, indulgently saccharine, and giddily nostalgic, L&OD is perhaps most tellingly smart.

Smart: the word that seems to get thrown around whenever a movie somehow surpasses the stereotypes foisted upon it via its marketing or supposed audience or a combination of the two. For perspective, The Social Network— the tell-all tale of geeks and geniuses and the multi-million dollar endeavor that is Facebook—recently earned that descriptor. Burlesque did not.

So what do we mean exactly when we call a popular film smart?

First, what makes me think that L&OD actually is smart? Most obviously, the combination of successful witty banter and the deeper medical/personal tragedy afoot hints at a genre transcendence that takes many viewers by surprise. In L&OD, the pervasive theme of medicine—and medication—is a multipurpose utensil, poking fun at the drug industry while pointing to the quieter tragedy/hope cocktail of those who depend upon pharmaceutical drugs for daily survival (mental, physical, or otherwise).

This type of combination—the simultaneously romantic/humorous and thought-provoking—seems oxymoronic, of course, because of the tremendous number of films that fail to gracefully mix genres. Unfortunately, these films seem to rely most often upon a “romantic” classification to rope in hordes of supposed commercially susceptible female viewers (a recent film to fit this category would be The Last Song, in which the heavy-handed marketing of lead Miley Cyrus resulted in a convoluted drama that masqueraded as a tween love flick, to disastrous effect).

Add to that an association with the moniker ‘chick flick’, a term rife with inherent derision, and it’s hardly surprising that many viewers don’t even enter a romantic comedy with the expectation of finding a smart film.

Small wonder, then, that L&OD’s successful mélange of romantic comedy with intellectual entertainment is surprising—and thus intelligent. We viewers have come to equate similar holiday-season romantic comedies with lobotomy-worthy time fillers—particularly when populated by two actor/tresses who exude the frank sex appeal and star power summoned by Gyllenhall and Hathaway. And who can blame audiences for their skepticism, anyway, after such patently non-smart hallmarks of the genre as the widely hyped Valentine’s Day?

But apart from its genre manipulation, L&OD is smart for an additional reason—one that allows the film to pack an affective punch long after viewers exit the theater. The secret to L&OD’s cleverness lies in its careful, intelligent manipulation of nostalgia.

The movie takes place in a ’90s-tinged elsewhere, verified by such neat filmic tricks as splices of dated, black-and-white home videos and liberal visuals of laughably bulky machinery (the film starts, perhaps a bit obviously, in an electronics store).

A.O. Scott wrote about the film’s admirable adaptation of the ’90s, speculating as to the reasons that such a specific historical grounding (1996) existed at all, let alone worked so well. Ultimately, Scott argues that the ’90s, from our vantage point here in late 2010, are indeed a time at once knowable and understandable. And, I would add, seductively yet untenably hopeful.

This lost-yet-found peace of mind (the hallowed simpler times, pre-terrorism-as-we-know-it, and a good 16 years before the supposed impending apocalypse) allows for a suspense of belief as we, the viewers, are caught between the known present and the now-untenable — yet still cinematically visible — past.

Such a suspension of belief understandably allows for a factual leniency in which we no longer mind, so much, when things take a turn for the trite. When Gyllenhall decides that he can’t live without Hathaway, Parkinson’s and dark future be damned, we viewers all the way up here in 2010 think, Why not? And that is smart filmmaking.

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