Film Review: Better Living Through Chemistry

Sam Rockwell breathes some life into suburban dark comedy.

"So … you wanna get high?" - Courtesy photo.
Courtesy photo.
"So … you wanna get high?"
Better Living Through Chemistry | C
Go for the jugular or go home. In creating their suburban noir, writer-directors Geoff Moore and David Posamentier seem to understand that irony is the stock-in-trade of any good dark comedy. Casting Sam Rockwell is a good start. The actor can turn on a dime, charming audiences with impish irreverence one minute, then unhinging into something darker in the next. 

There are brief flashes of that in Better Living Through Chemistry, when his small-town pharmacist Doug Varney decides to start sampling his own wares. Shedding his role as the henpecked husband, Rockwell’s mild-mannered character executes a sharp reversal in personality as years of stifled contempt blossom into acts of exuberant vandalism and inappropriate sexual confessions to his teenage son. Unfortunately, Moore and Posamentier’s profane riffs don’t really build into anything meaningful, as they favor easy-to-swallow rom-com sentimentalism over the cheeky aftertaste of a truly black-hearted noir.

The town is Woodbury, at first glance a Norman Rockwell slice of Americana where smiling postmen roam the neighborhood, the local policeman is as affable as can be, and Doug’s father-in-law (Ken Howard), who passed the pharmacy on to him, relentlessly bullies him over his inability to run the business. A spineless nebbish, our hero seems incapable of defending himself. No wonder his son Ethan (Harrison Holzer) can barely hide his disdain and his fitness-obsessed wife, Kara (Michelle Monaghan), shows so little sexual interest in him. Doug’s a pussy of the first order.

That all changes when he meets Elizabeth Roberts (the talented Olivia Wilde), the bored and highly seductive trophy wife of thuggish Ray Liotta. Improbably, the two strike up a drug-fueled affair that starts Doug thinking that maybe a little Double Indemnity is the prescription for a happier future. Clearly hot sweaty sex on the drugstore counter has caused him to forget the ending of that classic movie as he schemes of bumping off Elizabeth’s hubby.

Better Living Through Chemistry clearly wants us to cheer emasculated Doug on as he figures out how to grow a pair of balls. It’s a tall order for such an entitled, weaselly jerk. Rockwell is given a thanklessly bland and unsympathetic character who must blossom into a ruthlessly emancipated bastard. The script does this very fine actor no favors. Taking its cue from Bad Santa (but with none of that movie’s hilarious spite and scorn), Moore and Posamentier make Doug the liberated scoundrel who inadvertently does the right things for the wrong reasons. 

Flirting with darker impulses but defaulting to the kind of homey, suburban moralism (courtesy of Jane Fonda’s ineffectual narration), their film stumbles past targets richly deserving of ridicule in order to embrace dull sentimentalism. It’s a choice that saps the comedy of its satirical bite and dilutes the energy of its otherwise game cast. Like Rockwell’s druggist, Better Living Through Chemistry doesn’t have the cojones to deliver a good, nasty buzz. 

Better Living Through Chemistry is rated R, has a run time of 91 minutes and is in theaters now.

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