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Better Living Through Chemistry (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jun 10, 2020

Better Living Through Chemistry


Starring Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Michelle Monaghan, Norbert Leo Butz, Ben Schwartz, Ken Howard, Jenn Harris, Peter Jacobson, Harrison Holzer, Sonnie Brown, Ron Heneghan, Ken Arnold, Tracy McMullen, Ray Liotta and Jane Fonda.

Screenplay by Geoff Moore and David Posamentier.

Directed by Geoff Moore and David Posamentier.

Distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films. 91 minutes. Not Rated.

It’s not just every day that you find a film which suggests that the best way out of career doldrums and a dull marriage is through infidelity, experimentation with narcotics and plotting a murder.

Better Living Through Chemistry is surprisingly breezy dark comedy/romantic comedy hybrid which rides some terrific acting performances to make the film seem better than it actually is.

For Sam Rockwell’s manic lead performance alone it is definitely worth seeing.

Rockwell plays Douglas Varney, a repressed small-town pharmacist who works for his wife (Michelle Monaghan) Kara’s overbearing father Walter (Ken Howard).  Douglas always does the right thing, never pushes the envelope, eats sensibly, has boring hobbies and throws himself into a job he hates.  Even his grade school-aged son – a budding juvenile delinquent who is conversely an overweight nerd – feels mostly disdain for his dad.  Doug is also pushed around by his customers and his employees, especially a perpetually stoned delivery guy played by Ben Schwartz.

Doug has a problem with confrontation, he can never speak back to anyone, in particular his blow-hard father-in-law and his passive aggressive wife.  Monaghan’s wife character is a ball-busting horror.  It is not hard to believe that Doug needs something more in his life, but it is hard to believe that he could have ever married her in the first place.

As so often happens in this kind of film, Doug is drawn out of his shell by a femme fatale.

Elizabeth (Olivia Wilde) is an aging trophy wife who claims her husband (Ray Liotta) abuses and ignores her.  She also has a slight prescription drug problem.

Some harmless flirtation and a couple of chance meetings lead to a full-blown affair, in which the normally staid pharmacist realizes the excitement of misbehaving.  Soon Doug and Elizabeth are spending their time making love, taking copious amounts of narcotics and fancifully planning her husband’s death.

Ironically, Doug’s newfound freedom and confidence makes him more interesting to the people around him.  He tells off his father-in-law, relights the fire in the bedroom with Kara and has a bonding moment with his son revolving around an act of vandalism.

However, just when his life seems to be hitting fantasy levels, reality comes crashing through in the form of a DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) inspector looking into the discrepancies between the pharmacy's narcotic rolls and their actual stock.  Then on the day of the planned murder and fleeing to an island paradise with Elizabeth, he randomly meets her husband and realizes that her stories about him seem to be at the very least exaggerated, if not outright lies.

All of which leads Doug into a frenzied attempt to undo all of the crazed problems that he has created in his own life since becoming smitten with another woman.

Better Living Through Chemistry has some risky ideas, but mostly it's a kind of safe movie.  Rockwell is spectacular in the role of a man whose life keeps unraveling and he keeps jumping from lifeline to lifeline.

The movie itself is probably not worthy of Rockwell's performance, but it is an amusing look at modern life spinning out of control.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2014 All rights reserved. Posted: March 14, 2014.

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