Several months before Love and Other Drugs had its theatrical release, I wrote a post about serial romantic relationship addiction on my After Psychotherapy site, inspired by the movie’s title.  Now that it has come out on DVD, I’ve had a chance actually to see it.

Director Ed Zwick has given us a tale of two narcissistic people who take no trouble to hide their manipulative behavior from others but who are saved from utterly empty and selfish lives when love redeems them.  Although the redemptive power of love is one of my favorite themes (see my two-part post on Groundhog Day), in this case the transformation wears the Hollywood imprint a little too heavily.

As in so many romantic comedies, the happy ending feels contrived.  Even so, the film has some interesting insights about what drives narcissistic people and the nature of their attachment when they fall in love.  Along the way, it offers a shallow critique of Big Pharma that gets lost in the graphic sex, snappy dialog and plot twists.

Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal) works as a sales rep for the drug manufacturer Pfizer; the film draws some parallels between Jake’s exploitative behavior with women and Big Pharma’s ruthless drive for profit, regardless of their drugs’ actual benefits.  Bruce (Oliver Platt), Jamie’s partner/supervisor, spells it out: “Pharma sales is a lot like dating.  They want you to take them to dinner and pretend you expect nothing in return.”

When Jamie attends his introductory training session, it feels like a Las Vegas convention with fireworks, go-go dancers and easy sex.  With a leer and a wink, the sleezy (female) moderator tells the trainees that they can boost sales by “hinting” to doctors that the drugs have “off-label” uses that aren’t approved by the FDA but nonetheless useful.  In the audience, Jamie points out that Zoloft has been associated with suicality in teens, but the moderator skirts the issue.  Such critiques and questions might have provoked serious thought in a serious movie; here, they get lost in the contrivances of romance.

Jake soon meets Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), a 26-year-old women suffering from early-onset Parkinson’s disease.  She keeps men at a distance because (we eventually learn) she doesn’t want to feel hurt when her advancing illness drives them away.  Jake is a charming womanizer who never lets anyone get close to him.  At first, it seems like a match made in heaven: two attractive narcissistic people who have no interest in love but have great sex on the floor, in the back room at the restaurant where Maggie works, against the wall in an alley, etc.

“This isn’t about connection for you,” Maggie says.  “This isn’t even about sex for you.  This is about finding an hour or two of relief from the pain of being you.  That’s fine with me, see, because all I want is the exact same thing.”

They find their own sex so incredibly hot, in fact, that they videotape themselves in the act.  In many satisfying sexual relationships, there’s often a self-awareness, a feeling that one’s own sexual activities would be incredibly exciting to watch; this can make the sex even more satisfying — think mirrors on the ceiling.  Actually taping the deed is something else entirely, however.  It betrays a powerful narcissism at work; on the other hand, it doesn’t seem to be all that unusual in real life.  Usher and his ex-wife Tameka Foster are only the most recent celebrity couple to have their personal sex tapes go public.  Jamie’s own brother Josh (Josh Gad) discovers this private tape and masturbates to it.  None of this narcissistic behavior raises the least feeling of shame.

I’ve written extensively about narcissism as one of the primary defenses against shame; this movie instead offers some anodyne “insights” about low self-esteem.  When Maggie asks Jake to name four good things about himself, he can’t think of a single one.  He doesn’t really believe in himself or his own worth and that’s why he will never allow anyone to get close to him.   This film being in the genre of Hollywood romantic comedies, love is the answer … or cure for low self-esteem.

After the inevitable estrangement, Jamie chases Maggie down and delivers his big emotional speech about why he loves her:  “I have never cared about anybody or anything in my entire life.  And the thing is, everybody just kind of accepted that.  Like, ‘That’s just Jamie.’  And then you.  You … Jesus [cue romantic music] … you … you didn’t see me that way.  I haven’t known anybody that actually believed I was enough, until I met you.  And then you made me believe it, too.  So unfortunately, I need you.”  In other words, the fact that Maggie sees him as being worthwhile gives him the self-esteem he has lacked; unfortunately, he now can’t live without her since if she stops believing in him, he’ll lose it.   That is my definition of a narcissistic attachment:  “I love you because of the way you make me feel about myself.’ And not the basis for a lasting relationship.

But hey, this is Hollywood.  They lived happily ever after, right?