An inside look with nothing to say

January 6, 2011

Helen Redmond reviews a film that has plenty of opportunities to shed some light on the state of health care and the drug industry today--but misses them.

LOVE IS not a drug, but alcohol and Viagra are. And in the film Love and Other Drugs, Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway knock back lots of liquor and men are prescribed plenty of Viagra for erectile dysfunction.

The movie is loosely based on Jamie Reidy's tell-all book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, which gives a riveting insider account of Pfizer--the world's largest and most cutthroat pharmaceutical corporation. According to Reidy, Pfizer prefers to hire ex-military and Mormons to sell their drugs, because they have discipline and believe without question in the mission.

Pfizer is notorious for breaking the law, and then getting away with paying fines and the executives serving no time. In 2009, in the largest health care fraud settlement in history, Pfizer was ordered to pay $2.3 billion for illegally marketing off-label drugs. But even that wasn't a lot for Pfizer--that same year, the company reported $50 billion in revenue.

WikiLeaks documents recently exposed a more sinister side to Pfizer. During a drug trial conducted in Nigeria, a Pfizer antibiotic, Trovan, was alleged to have killed five of the children on whom it was tested. The report disclosed by WikiLeaks details how the company hired private investigators to find corruption in the Nigerian attorney general's background in order to blackmail him into dropping a proposed settlement of $75 million. Pfizer spent $15 million a year for 13 years in legal fees to fight having to pay out any money to the Nigerian government.

Jake Gyllenhaal (left) is a pharmaceutical industry salesman in Love and Other Drugs
Jake Gyllenhaal (left) is a pharmaceutical industry salesman in Love and Other Drugs

IN THE film, Gyllenhaal plays Jamie, and we learn about the intense training of the drug "reps," as the salesmen are called. He goes to Pfizer boot camp to learn how to sell drugs to doctors. The Pfizer motto is "A Better World, That's Why We're Here," and their mantra to ensure a steady dose of profits is to "close" the doctor.

Closing is getting the doctor, after a fact-filled, well-rehearsed monologue/suck-up, to agree to prescribe Pfizer drugs. If that doesn't do the trick, doctor brand loyalty is bought by offering a series of legal bribes: speaker and consulting fees, free lunches, dinner "programs" at expensive restaurants (open bar), free samples of medication and a potpourri of pens, post-it notes and mugs embossed with the Pfizer logo. Drug reps spy on physicians by tracking their prescribing practices, and then target the ones who don't use their brand name drugs.

Jamie, who uses his good looks and faux charm to sell everything from plasma TVs to Xbox games, takes the drug deception to another level and commits fraud. He offers a sleazy Dr. Stan Knight, played by Hank Azaria, $1,000 if he'll let him see patients with him. During an office visit with Hathaway's character, Maggie Murdoch, she asks who Jamie is. He lies and says he's an intern. Neither men question for one second the morality or ethics of their actions.

Review: MOVIES

Love and Other Drugs, directed by Edward Zwick, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway.

Love and Other Drugs is a Hollywood movie that takes up serious subject matter--the profitable and powerful pharmaceutical industry and access to life-prolonging medications--but glosses over almost entirely the political and personal realities of how these corporations both destroy some people's lives, and also improve others, but for a price.

Instead, the film focuses on the relationship between Jamie, a square-jawed, fast-talking, vacuous womanizer--and Maggie, a sassy and insecure artist diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. All the tired tropes of relationships are reprised every step of the way to the predictable end: casual lack of commitment, fall in love but can't admit it, rejection, separation to revelation, car chase to crying, cheese-ball confession, happily ever after, together forever.

It all starts, not surprisingly, with sex--no Viagra needed. The two have sex on the hardwood floor in Maggie's art-filled loft, eventually migrate to her bed, with lots of locations in between.

The problem is that there isn't any sexual chemistry between these two handsome actors because they're so boring, one-dimensional and narcissistic. It's only toward the end of the film that we get a glimpse of the demons that drive their characters, but it's too late. The ending is so corny and contrived that you won't care.

And that's a shame because there are numerous opportunities in the film to learn about how health care, disability and drugs shape and change a person's life and their intimate relationships. Hathaway's Maggie could have taught us about the fear of having Parkinson's disease, of being pitied and alone, as well as the terror of being uninsured.

Instead, at a doctor visit, when asked if she has insurance, she pulls out a thick wad of cash. Sure--an artist who works in a tiny coffee bar has enough cash on hand to pay for constant doctor visits and neurological tests. It's ridiculous and dishonest.

Maggie organizes bus trips to Canada for older adults to buy medicine because it's cheaper, sometimes half the price of medication in the U.S. Jamie accompanies her on a trip, but they never talk about the contradiction of him working for the industry that forces people to cross the border of the richest country in the world to get a prescription filled.

Maggie then goes with Jamie to a pharmaceutical convention and ends up across the street at the "unconvention," which is organized by people living with Parkinson's disease. People with Parkinson's stand at the microphone, with their hands shaking and voices quavering, to give moving and very funny speeches about the realities of living with a chronic and incurable disease.

Maggie calls Jamie and tells him to come over to the meeting, and what he sees and hears frightens him, but gives her hope that she can cope with the disease. But once again, the connections and contradictions between their lives aren't explored in any depth.

There is one scene, though, that captures the criminality of the drug industry and the hard reality of a life-threatening disease. The tremors in Maggie's hands are so bad she can't open the bottles of medication she bought in Canada. This is a moment when Maggie's fear and frustration will move you to tears.

THE DISCOVERY of Viagra dramatically improved both the lives of men with impotence and their intimate partners, but even that game-changing, scientific breakthrough isn't explored in the film.

Incredibly, in the first few years of its manufacture, insurers didn't want to cover Viagra calling it a "lifestyle" drug--as if the ability to have sex was a matter of lifestyle and not a central human need. Eventually, insurance did cover Viagra, and Pfizer made billions. Before it went off patent, one little, blue, diamond-shaped pill of Viagra cost $10. The generic version, Sildenafil Citrate, costs 97 cents per pill.

But in Love and Other Drugs, ED is treated as a joke, and the film gives the false impression that Viagra is widely used by young men who want guaranteed erections.

In fact, the typical Viagra user is 50 years old and has at least one cardiovascular risk factor--diabetes, hypertension, obesity or high cholesterol. It's estimated that 20 million men suffer from some type of ED, a huge and eager market for pharmaceutical companies. And Viagra works: 83 percent of men report that they are able to have sex at least once after using the drug for a few weeks.

At one point, Jamie--now a rich, Porsche-driving and popular Viagra pusher--is invited to an orgy and asked to bring samples of the "fuck drug." During a lull in the Viagra-fueled coupling, Jamie and Dr. Knight, who injects himself with testosterone to improve his performance along with ingesting Viagra, lounge with cocktails in hand and blithely comment about the state of health care in the U.S.

You'd never know there were millions of people suffering from lack of access to health care from their boozy conversation.

Love and Other Drugs isn't about love or other drugs. It is a disappointing and flaccid film--no amount of Viagra will change that.

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