A young woman asks her doctor to look at a mysterious bump on her breast. She unbuttons her shirt, opens her bra, and the doctor diagnoses the bump as a bug bite. The woman laughs off her overreaction—no one saw but the doctor and the observing intern in the white coat, right? Wrong. We, the audience saw, and for the next hour or so we’re going to see a lot more of Anne Hathaway’s body, along with most of the handsome intern’s (Jake Gyllenhaal).
Love and Other Drugs is, despite its A-list stars, a fairly standard romantic drama. Jamie is a cocky drug rep (he pretends to be an intern to flatter the doctor); Maggie is the free spirit with an incurable disease who teaches him to love: Jerry Maguire Goes to the Hospital. But director Ed Zwick has higher aspirations, which he signals by not cutting away when Maggie undoes her blouse.
According to the logic of today’s Hollywood, the fact that Hathaway and Gyllenhaal flash so much flesh is an indication of the film’s artistic intent. Not so long ago (think Porky’s era), gratuitous nude scenes were pretty much de rigueur for American actresses until they became big-enough stars to say no. But increasingly, nudity has become a self-congratulatory indication of European-style seriousness, an interruption of the narrative to remind the audience we are watching A Work of Art.
This is not to say nudity never works on screen. Brokeback Mountain, a film in which Gyllenhaal and Hathaway also partially disrobe, deals explicitly with the characters’ shame and vulnerability, so the nudity feels not just natural but necessary. On the other hand, it can be just as jarring when an otherwise realistic film goes to absurd lengths to pretend the actors never see each other in less than their underwear or strategically wrapped sheets.
To be clear, there are far worse ways to kill 90 minutes than watching two gorgeous actors cavort seminude. The problem is, we know too much about the level of calculation leading up to those moments to suspend our disbelief. What is often meant to imply a character’s casual attitude about nudity in fact represents the most tensely negotiated moments of the film. Consider Jessica Alba’s insistence that she shoot a nude scene for Machete in her bra and panties, which were later digitally removed. Or Gyllenhaal and Hathaway’s demand that Zwick disrobe in a quid pro quo when they shot the film’s poster.
When actresses like Hathaway (and, to a lesser degree, actors like Gyllenhaal) decide to bare all, they inevitably justify the choice by saying it was integral to the character. Of course nudity is integral to the character; so is buying groceries and paying the bills, yet directors don’t feel compelled to show that stuff. There’s nothing remarkable about a character taking off her clothes to have sex—that’s how most of us do it. Conversely, a person’s refusal to undress during sex gives us a world of information about who he is (three words: Eliot Spitzer’s socks). Nudity is remarkable only in the context of it happening on the screen. The perfectly inoffensive Love and Other Drugs might have profited by removing some of the swelling music and you-complete-me-style declarations of love. Removing Maggie’s and Jamie’s pajamas, however, does little more than make us wonder what, if anything, Hathaway eats, and how often Gyllenhaal goes to the gym.