“I’m knowingly full of shit,” says Jamie Randall, the smarmy Viagra salesman played by Jake Gyllenhaal in Edward Zwick’s slick romantic comedy “Love and Other Drugs,” which opens this week. Gyllenhaal doesn’t have to work hard to make the line credible, nor does the movie bend over backwards to avoid letting that same verdict apply to its very essence. “Drugs” is decently entertaining, formulaic to a fault and incredibly commercial. It’s also, as a result of the aforementioned trifecta, largely unremarkable.
Like so many cleanly executed, studio-mandated stories, Zwick’s adaptation of Jamie Reidy’s non-fiction tome “Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman” offers nothing new. I have no qualms about genre providing a stable backbone for an original idea, but “Drugs” displays no real effort to do anything but play it safe. The plot revolves around a trite relationship story, in which Jamie falls for temperamental waitress Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), an alienated woman resigned to the single life as a result of suffering from the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease. Overcoming his own hustler tendencies, Jamie rescues Maggie from her self-imposed isolation, and together they make peace with her physical ailment. It’s a simplistic journey ready-made for emotional manipulation, particularly due to Maggie’s frailty: Every twitch or tear she sheds represents a feeble bid for acclaim that easily translates to posters, trailers, awards campaigns and, ultimately, aspirations of box office and DVD prosperity. You heard it here first: Anne Hathaway is the face of modern Hollywood capitalism.
I kid, of course. But I would rather bitch about a movie that indulges in a half-dozen tired tricks than waste time picking apart an early-career effort with virtually none of them. I’m referring to “Tiny Furniture,” the second feature from 24-year-old writer-director-actress Lena Dunham, which holds its own against the specific critical scrutiny that makes “Drugs” wither. Dunham’s amusingly snarky portrait of ‘postgraduate delirium,’ where she plays a loose version of herself and casts members of her family in similar capacities, both runs against the grain of commercial viability and secretly embraces it.
The exploits of young Aura take place under virtually plotless conditions — most of the running time revolves around her complaining to anyone in her immediate vicinity — and she never falls in love or finds an alternate cure-all for her familiar mid-twenties doldrums. She’s also slightly pudgy and pouts more often than she smiles, a series of physical rebuttals to the stereotypical screen presence of young Hollywood actresses from every era of the business.
Both “Tiny Furniture” and “Drugs” center on twentysomething women unsure of what they want to do with their lives (and to fill their empty schedules, both Aura and Maggie take jobs waiting tables). While Maggie’s predicament runs deeper than Aura’s, Hathaway’s stardom makes it impossible to believe that everything has gone awry for her character, whereas Aura’s frustrations feel comparatively legitimate. Even so, Dunham has an ear for dialogue that lends a brisk, fun sensibility to “Tiny Furniture” even as she colors outside the lines of industry norms. That’s not to say the movie lacks issues of its own; rather, the Dunham factor overpowers many of them.
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At this point I should pause to consider the risk of overemphasizing the emergent talent in question. As a critic whose review schedule largely involves the discovery of noteworthy features on the film festival circuit, I court the danger that larger media outlets routinely embrace, endlessly championing the “it” kid du jour, a category where Dunham now finds herself at the center. To buy into hype without properly evaluating it could make you a whore of the trends that define this transient niche of the movie world, with its endless stream of awards and other accolades. (“Tiny Furniture” began its path to popularity when it won the Best Narrative Feature award at the South by Southwest Film Festival earlier this year, a fact that the trailer eagerly reminds you.)
The rebuttal to this rant is that there’s usually something productive about mining for talent on the festival circuit, and “Tiny Furniture” quietly emerged from this makeshift vetting process. The flurry of coverage Dunham has received in recent weeks implies that her new movie found instant success, when in fact she first set down her training wheels a year earlier with the SXSW non-competition selection “Creative Nonfiction.”
I recall seeing this intriguing debut feature, an ultra-scrappy dorm room comedy that barely lasted an hour, at the 2009 festival and admiring a few scenes. As she does in “Tiny Furniture,” Dunham played a thinly-veiled version of herself and accurately conveyed a sense of college-age disillusionment. A handful of scenes felt incomplete, but the minimal plot, in which the Dunham character grappled with guy problems and the challenges of writing about her life for the titular college course without letting her fantasies take charge, held curious appeal. “It’s not really a movie,” I told a colleague at the time, “but it shows you that she can probably make a pretty good one.”
“Creative Nonfiction” suggested, and “Tiny Furniture” confirmed, that Dunham could be a good thing for mainstream American cinema, which needs more believable characterizations and fewer “Drugs.” The awkward pillow talk between two unattractive college kids in “Creative Nonfiction” is sweetly memorable, unlike the nakedness on display in “Drugs,” which predominantly involves Hathaway’s breasts and Gyllenhaal’s behind, for whatever those are worth. (Dunham’s own decision to appear pantless in several scenes of her film has sparked a curious dialogue among critics about feminine representation, but more on that in a bit.) “Tiny Furniture” has one freaky sex scene; “Love” has at least three of them, scrunched together in a giddy collage that apparently celebrates the notion of getting A-list actors to disrobe as a grand accomplishment.
I guess that’s easier than conversation, which the two “Drugs” leads handle fairly well, on the few occasions they’re given the opportunity for it. More frequently, however, the screenplay (credited to Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, and Charles Randolph), evades the possibilities of making Jamie and Maggie seem like real people. During an early stage of their courtship, Hathaway actually rolls her eyes and says, “This is the part where we talk about where we come from and what our majors were in college.” Presented as smarter than the conventions of the genre, that self-referential silliness instead plays into the worst expectations of it.
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In “Tiny Furniture,” the exact aimless chatter that Maggie circumvents in “Drugs” makes up most of Dunham’s movie. And yet it miraculously never drags: When I initially saw Dunham’s steady depiction of the upper class Manhattan bubble where she grew up – a tightly contained universe where Aura persistently clashes with Dunham’s real-life sister Grace and their mother, established visual artist Laurie Simmons – I acknowledged its evident charm. Dunham has a long way to go before she makes a masterpiece, but there are enough clues in her existing oeuvre to make the argument that she probably has at least one in her. A recent profile of Dunham described “Tiny Furniture” as “Larry David’s ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ mashed up with Whit Stillman’s ‘Metropolitan,’ or ‘Manhattan’ —if it had been directed by Mariel Hemingway rather than by Woody Allen.” If Dunham can perfect her own personal twist any of those referents, she could make some major aesthetic strides.
In the meantime, I’m more impressed with the increasingly public narrative of Dunham’s rising stardom than I am with the merits of “Tiny Furniture” alone. It’s worth noting that her effervescent approach to autobiographical storytelling impressed industry heavyweight Judd Apatow, whose support currently sustains a developing HBO show that Dunham has created. Apatow, whose last great accomplishment took place in the broadcast arena with the short-lived “Freaks and Geeks” over a decade ago, carries a commercial seal of approval that may provide Dunham with enough flashy PR ammo to cross over to the mainstream. If she can do that, and do it well, Dunham may inspire other filmmakers intent on telling their personal, and perhaps unflattering, stories. Like Dunham, they can believe in the prospects of finding larger audiences — and the industry itself might get into the idea as well.
I would not like to rally for a hundred “Tiny Furniture” clones, but only for an uptick of young anti-heroes willing to look imperfect in close-ups. When life appears unflattering, it also seems more honest: The affluent, vanilla insularity of Aura’s world invites plenty of resentment for her whiny demeanor, but since she embraces her life as a spoiled brat, Dunham leaves room for interpretation. You can read “Tiny Furniture” as an indictment of lazy rich kid behavior or a tentative defense for it. (Her comparatively sane younger sister offers a de facto argument in favor of their surroundings, suggesting Aura’s bitchy soul-searching has more to do with her internal issues than a cushy upbringing.)
Aura’s neuroses make her ripe for analysis. In Manohla Dargis’s review of “Tiny Furniture,” The New York Times critic went so far as to wonder if the character’s first name was a reference to the essence of artistic value discussed by the German intellectual Walter Benjamin. But while she doesn’t mention another noted scholar whose name tends to come up in a completely separate arena of film theory, you can feel the weight of feminist writer Laura Mulvey’s assertions about the male gaze in Dargis’s follow-up graph, which concludes: “Female stars are created to be looked at; Aura invites your gaze, and troubles it.”
And yet Aura does this without destroying the ease of the viewing experience. “Tiny Furniture” is conventionally entertaining without relying on a string of clichés, resulting in an unlikely combination that makes the occasional unevenness of the screenplay a lot more bearable than the neat, sappy design of “Love and Other Drugs.”
Perhaps that’s why Hollywood Elsewhere blogger Jeffrey Wells anticipated my disdain for “Drugs” over a month ago, lumping me with In Contention critic Guy Lodge as the
“Eric Kohn-Guy Lodge nitpick crowd.” Acknowledging that “Drugs” “isn’t ‘Alexander the Great,'” Wells wondered why we couldn’t see (from a theoretical vantage point, anyway) that Zwick’s movie “just works…sometimes [with] strained humor, and yet it never slows down or goes off the rails, or at least not to any worrisome degree.” I’ll give Wells this much: “Drugs” is not conspicuously unpleasant, just as easy to like as clicking the “like” button on a Facebook status update, and ultimately just as unmemorable. The final product, as Jamie says, is knowingly full of shit.
Spoiler alert: “Drugs” ends as countless movies have before it, with an impossible last-minute coup by Jamie to win back Maggie’s affections that — against all odds — works out pretty well. How many times have dashing male leads wooed their feeble ladyfriends in irrational attempts to justify sticking together? For a cliché that has been done to death, it sure has a hard time staying buried. When the story retreats to the timeless cop-out of a warm embrace, it inadvertently reminds us that the biggest drugs of the modern studio romance are the safest bets. Let’s just hope that up-and-comers like Dunham take none of them.
“Tiny Furniture”: B+
“Love and Other Drugs”: C+