It’s official — without the crutch of huge period set pieces or portentous, booming war music, the Oscar-grubbing, bravado-crushing Edward Zwick (“Defiance”) has absolutely no idea how to make a movie.

“Love and Other Drugs”

At Quality 16 and Rave
20th Century Fox

Case in point: his latest attempt at romantic comedy, the sloppy, sticky “Love and Other Drugs.” Based on the bestselling memoir of Viagra drug rep Jamie Reidy, “Love” is a bipolar disaster waiting to happen — a sex comedy about a womanizing Pfizer salesman (Jake Gyllenhaal, “Brokeback Mountain”) that transmogrifies into a PSA about Parkinson’s disease. The mutation begins when Anne Hathaway (“Rachel Getting Married”) comes into the picture, playing Maggie, a freeloving Manic Pixie Dream Girl with a crippling disease that gradually eats away at the crux of the storyline, tremor by tremor.

Films generally have a natural rhythm, a beat that carries them through strands of dialogue and scene changes with relative ease. This rhythm is exceptionally important in films with relatively little substance, i.e. romantic comedies, which need to balance out the rom from the com so that one doesn’t swallow up the other in magnitude. But this isn’t a problem for “Love and Other Drugs” — as it stutters through the motions, it becomes increasingly clear that the film has no substance on either front anyway.

If “Love” is a slapstick sex comedy about Viagra, then why isn’t it funny? There are not one, not two, but three awkward, unattractive sidekicks (Oliver Platt of “2012,” Hank Azaria of “The Simpsons Movie” and Josh Gad of “21”) pawing at Gyllenhaal like puppies, throwing off lame penis jokes like ping-pong balls. When Zwick has exhausted his various references to erections and genitalia, he resorts to showing camera shots of actual erections and genitalia. This doesn’t really lighten the mood.

But if “Love” is a Lifetime movie about Parkinson’s disease, then why is it so emotionally vacant? Jamie apparently never comprehends what Parkinson’s actually is, as he stares straight past Maggie’s blatantly shaking hands while she attempts to pick up her pills. The climax consists of a really obvious close-up into their tear-stained faces while a husky-voiced Nina Simone in training wails in the background. Melodrama is fine in certain instances, but “Love” turns from funny to sad in a shift so overblown that it doesn’t resemble soap as it does really disgusting, mushy goop.

None of this is helped by the fact that Zwick doesn’t seem to have the slightest clue how to showcase simple human emotions. For him, love and mutual attraction equals filming lots and lots (and lots) of sex scenes. Jamie and Maggie don’t talk to each other. They don’t flirt with each other. Hell, they don’t even look at each other for the most part, unless they’re ripping off each other’s clothes to have more sex. Three-quarters into the movie, Jamie starts hyperventilating uncontrollably and admits to the dumbstruck Maggie that he loves her. “I’ve never said that to anyone before,” he gasps. This is the first time they’ve ever spoken to each other with their clothes on for more than 30 seconds, so count us among the surprised as well.

But thankfully, Gyllenhaal and Hathaway possess just enough natural chemistry to make their characters believable. Even if the majority of the time their “performances” consist of tangling their naked bodies together and making really loud sex sounds, they sparkle. With his delightfully rakish hair and lopsided smile crinkling up to his half-moon eyebrows, Gyllenhaal charms with a Clooney-esque role in a decidedly not Clooney-esque movie. Hathaway, fresh off a Best Actress nomination from “Rachel Getting Married,” emotes a ragged sensuality that hints at more depth than Zwick tries to give us. Together, they’ve got the instincts to make magic in an otherwise flaccid movie. And after they brush the stench of “Love” off their shoulders, they need to make another movie together, stat. Or at least hook up in real life.

“Love and Other Drugs” is proof that Zwick needs to stick to making films about Nazis or blood diamonds or basically whatever the hell doesn’t have a female marketing extravaganza prestamped in the title. It takes good acting to push through suffocatingly affected dialogue and a director who has no idea how normal human beings interact with each other, and Gyllenhaal and Hathaway certainly do their best. But the fact of the matter remains: “Love” can’t be saved — not by them, not by love and not by drugs.

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