Better Living Through Chemistry (2014) / Comedy-Thriller
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but definitely would be R for sexual situations, drug content, and language
Running Time: 91 min.
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Michelle Monaghan, Ken Howard, Harrison Holzer, Ben Schwartz, Norbert Leo Butz, Ray Liotta, Jane Fonda
Director: Geoff Moore, David Posamentier
Screenplay: Geoff Moore, David Posamentier
Review published March 11, 2014
Sam Rockwell (The Way Way Back, Seven Psychopaths) stars as Douglas Varney, a newly established pharmacist in a small, fictional town called Woodbury (shot in Maryland). He's a good guy, but not very assertive, as his self-absorbed and highly insensitive wife Kara (Monaghan, Expecting), his emo son (Holzer, Bored to Death), and meddling father-in-law Walter (Howard, Rambo), who ran the pharmacy for many years prior to handing the reins over, remind him of constantly. Things begin to take a turn when Doug encounters the allure of Elizabeth (Wilde, Her), the town's terminally bored trophy wife of a well-to-do businessman (Liotta, Observe and Report). As she is a pill-popper and he hasn't had sex from his neglectful wife in forever, they both find a certain value in each other when they embark on an affair. And things get even more interesting when Doug begins to "get high on his own supply", using the pharmaceuticals and creating his own special-made cocktails to help him plow through all of his life's problems. That is until the DEA begins to snoop around at his operations.
Better Living Through Chemistry is a completely unsuccessful and meanspirited mish-mash of several genre elements, from quaint small-town black comedy (gossipy but good-natured inhabitants) to film noir (passive male succumbs to scheming female lover). Written and directed by the first-timer team of Geoff Moore and David Posamentier, the narrative has no compelling story arc to follow, and Sam Rockwell, who so capably steals scenes in just about any movie he is a supporting character of, can't find a good groove. Some of the humor seems to come through the fact that the town's only pharmacist would know all of the dirty details of everyone's lives, from their diabetic needs, their erectile dysfunction issues to the origin of their genital warts. And he controls all of the drugs available, with a pill for every problem under the sun. But the main gist of the story mostly involves Doug trying to "man up" and stop being just a doormat for everyone else around him. It's a story angle both too familiar and too forced to deliver many unexpectedly humorous surprises.
The best thing one can say about the film is that it sports a surprisingly robust cast of very appealing actors, though most are replacing an equally interesting cast that had been selected earlier in the production of this slow-to-develop project. Sam Rockwell gets the bulk of the screen time in a role originally with Jeremy Renner attached, though Paul Rudd, who has also been named as being in the running, would have been a more natural fit. Jennifer Garner was to have played the role that would end up with Olivia Wilde co-starring, and probably would have been a better choice, looking a lot less alluring and conniving as Wilde ends up being. Jane Fonda (The Butler), replacing Judi Dench, narrates and gets a brief cameo delivering a line what is the only line I laughed in the entire movie (something about the excellent selection of douches in the store). For a film which expounds better living through chemistry, it's a shame that chemistry didn't extend to the character interactions, including a few tawdry sex scenes between Rockwell and Wilde that ineptly play for neither sexiness nor laughs.
Plus, there is the fact that this raunchy and pervasively caustic comedy is rather cavalier about the dangers of popping pills in order to achieve success in life. Though there are severe downsides to prescription drug abuse, it's mostly seen here from a legal standpoint rather than from general unhealthiness, and this film eventually doesn't even commit to even that. As far as films that mix pharmaceutical meds and noirish thrills, Side Effects would be the pill I'd prescribe. Better Living is bad medicine.
©2014 Vince Leo