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Movie Review: Love and Other Drugs

Wednesday, January 12, 2011
'Love and Other Drugs', which is currently screening in the cinemas, is a film starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, and directed by Edward Zwick. If it has to be classified in a certain genre, then one might call it a 'romantic comedy', or even a "comedy romance drama" as one Catholic reviewer put it. However, nothing in the trailer, or its classification as a romantic comedy, prepared me for the satire and portrayal of true love that underlies the more superficial aspects of the movie. But having read a number of reviews concerning this movie, it would appear that it is precisely the latter that has drawn the most attention. And this is not surprising since the movie does have a considerable amount of on-screen sex, and the film does not shy from nudity. But I am dismayed that major Catholic reviews have also been so preoccupied by the nudity and casual sex, and other acts which are "morally offensive" that they fail to highlight the good, and the moral journey that is embedded in the movie. The aim of this review is to offer what I hope is a more positive take on the movie's moral merit, and if you don't want to read any spoilers, I recommend you stop reading now, watch the movie, and then come back to this afterwards!

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jamie, a charismatic person who uses his charms to sell pharmaceuticals for Pfizer. Part of this movie, then, is a dig at the lucrative pharmaceutical industry, and the nepotistic relationship between doctors and pharmaceutical sales representatives. But overlying what purports to be an exposé of the moral bankruptcy of the US "medical community" is a personal tale of Jamie's own initial amorality, his lust for wealth, sex, and personal gain, and how he actually matures as a person. In contrast, the industry he works in becomes ever more immature and self-centred, as epitomized (in the movie) by the run-away success of the Pfizer-developed drug, Viagra. Ultimately, sex itself is shown to be one of the drugs that one can be addicted to, often as an escape from one's pain, or a mask for one's own insecurities. And like any drug, it has a transient effect and is not ultimately satisfying.

Jamie then meets Maggie, played by Anne Hathaway, and they hit it off immediately because they both seem to want the same thing: casual sex. But Maggie has early-onset Parkinson's disease, and she uses casual liaisons to keep people away from seeing her vulnerability and fear, and also to feel wanted. Her deepest fear is that she will end up alone and abandoned because of the burden that her illness would put on those around her. So, she deeply longs to be loved, and uses sex as a poor substitute for it. But at the same time she is afraid to be loved because that means she would have to be less independent, and actually accept the help of another person, and eventually have to rely on him. This requires trust, of course, and that is possibly what we fear most about love. Fear of trusting another, and so, being vulnerable not only extends to our human relationships, but I think, it may also explain why so many of our contemporaries are afraid to have faith in God, and accept his love. We're so conditioned by society to be independent and self-reliant, or wounded by past experiences, that we might no longer know how to trust another, and be loved, even by God who is Love.

Jamie, on the other hand, does not know how to love. He only knows how to take pleasure, and aim for his own ambitious goals, and he will do anything to achieve his desires. And so, when he tells Maggies he loves her - the first time he'd ever done so in his life - the movie shows him frightened, trembling, and confused. But this realization is the first step towards his becoming human. For he finds himself, and indeed, we all do as persons, in loving others. And so, Jamie, drawn initially by the 'bait' of lust and sexual pleasure, learns to love truly. A turning point comes when Jamie encounters a man whose wife is in the advanced stages of Parkinson's. He recounts with emotion the ravages of the illness, and says that if he had known beforehand, he would not have married his wife. And one wonders if Jamie - who is desperate to find a cure for Maggie's illness for his own sake - would do the understandable thing, and run away from the relationship.

But in the end - after a few more twists to the tale - he doesn't, because he has learnt what it really means to love another, and he sacrifices a much-desired lucrative job promotion to stay with Maggie, and care for her. Hence, in both persons, we see a movement in their characters as they mature as individuals, relinquish fear and selfish pleasures, and learn to grow in the virtue of love itself. What makes this movie compelling, then, is this movement, and the movie allows us to glimpse a part of their pilgrimage of life. And I think, if we're honest, we'll see something of ourselves, and our own moral growth in them. So, seen in a positive light, this movie might well speak to our generation, which is caught up in the transient pleasures of sex and other drugs, and maybe give them pause to reflect on just how much more beautiful, enduring, and powerful love is.

Finally, this movement reminded me of Pope Benedict's words in §9 of his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, which also invites us to discover the depths of real love. So, let his be the final words with which to reflect on 'Love and Other Drugs':
"Yet eros and agape — ascending love and descending love — can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized. Even if eros is at first mainly covetous and ascending, a fascination for the great promise of happiness, in drawing near to the other, it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to “be there for” the other. The element of agape thus enters into this love, for otherwise eros is impoverished and even loses its own nature. On the other hand, man cannot live by oblative, descending love alone. He cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift. Certainly, as the Lord tells us, one can become a source from which rivers of living water flow (cf. Jn 7:37-38). Yet to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God (cf. Jn 19:34)."

Lawrence Lew OP



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