Film Review – Better Living Through Chemistry
Better Living Through Chemistry
Better Living Through Chemistry comes off as a comedic reworking of Double Indemnity. Sifted through an independent comedy sensibility, the film concerns a meek cuckold of a husband and father who is taken in by a seductress. While similar plots are well worn and may seem tired at this point, this comedy at least puts some endearing spins on this formula.
Sam Rockwell stars as small town Pharmacist Douglas Varney. He is sexually ignored by his fit and driven bicycle racing obsessed wife played by a sharp Michelle Monaghan. He’s browbeaten by his controlling father in law from whom he is taking over the pharmacy business. It’s the type of control where, though wife’s Dad is retiring, he won’t let Doug change the name on the sign outside. Doug’s in charge in name only. Meanwhile, his own moody teenage son is acting out at school. While Doug has some thoughts concerning how he should intervene on his son’s behalf, his wife completely ignores his advice and exacerbates the issue.
One night while delivering prescriptions around town while covering for one of his disrespectful stoned employees (a particularly funny Ben Schwartz of Parks and Recreation fame), Doug is met at the door by the scantily clad Elizabeth Ross. As played by Olivia Wilde, Elizabeth has bedroom eyes, a pill popping habit, a free spirit, and always a drink in her hand. After a couple of meetings she seduces Doug (though Doug doesn’t take much seducing). Elizabeth and Doug proceed to go engage in a wild affair where they often partake of Doug’s drug supply. Through frequent voice overs by the comically disembodied voice of Jane Fonda, it is explained how much Doug’s life improves through the use of drugs. Uppers, downers, mood enhancers, energy supplements, amphetamines, they do them all with abandon. Interspersed with sex and a let loose attitude, it turns out to be very fun.
During one of their binges, and what seems an intentional departure from form for this type of story, Doug comes up with the idea of offing Elizabeth’s supposedly evil husband so she can inherit his fortune. This is the more unusual part of this story. Elizabeth is genuinely hesitant. You don’t get the impression that this is what she had in mind all along. Usually in this type of tale, the evil woman has a calculating plan the entire time. Meanwhile, Better Living Through Chemistry unfolds more charmingly and believably than that.
My personal man-crush on Sam Rockwell continues. This guy deserves to be a household name. He’s not an obscure actor by any means. But still, his career is still at the point where if you name him outside of film nerd circles you have to mention him as that dorky evil guy in Iron Man 2 who wasn’t Mickey Rourke. He continues his string of winning performances here and proves to be one of the most criminally under-appreciated actors in Hollywood. Rockwell’s ability to get eccentric while still maintaining a level of charm and loveability is his greatest asset. As Doug becomes more drug fueled, Rockwell is given more chances to let loose. And as always, watching him is just plain fun.
Olivia Wilde is quite good in this movie as well. Of course she is a beautiful woman playing a sexpot here. But she is able to infuse what could have been a cardboard role with some depth. She is able to change and grow in this story as much as Doug.
If there are any failings to be found here, it’s most likely from the script by co-writers and directors Geoff Moore and David Posamentier. The voice-over commentary concerning what drugs do in this modern age is funny. But the satirical point trying to be made about how we all seem to medicate our misery instead of finding actual fulfillment is a little too on the nose. It comes off as a bit obvious. Also, Doug starts the film as a cartoonish cuckold. His transition to carefree drug user is a little too quick. Yes, we get that Doug has been unhappy for years, so he would be ready to bust out. But it might be a little more nuanced if his transition to free spirit was slightly more gradual.
Still, as an independent comedy take on classic noir tropes, Better Living Through Chemistry is charming. The performances are charming and the characters are funny. While not perfect, this movie is worth watching.