A bit too self-consciously quirky and proud of itself, Better Living Through Chemistry nevertheless allows us an opportunity to observe the always fascinating character actor Sam Rockwell and to wonder why his particular set of skills doesn’t quite translate into the ability to carry a movie, much less anything like full fledged stardom.
Rockwell possesses a sort of nervous-making charm, a sense of dangerous instability that suits him well in supporting roles and when playing outre characters such as the game show host (and maybe assassin) Chuck Barris (whom he portrayed in 2002 ’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) or as paranoid astronaut Sam Bell (in Duncan Jones’ Moon). He’s immensely watchable in small to medium doses - he elevated Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Seven Psychopaths and The Way, Way Back.
Yet there are times that his Nicolas Cage-style commitment to his roles feels a little forced. Roger Ebert once compared him to Christopher Walken, and the comparison seems apt. Rockwell is a spice you can use liberally, but his distinctness needs to be curated. He might have made a great Tony Stark if Robert Downey Jr. hadn’t, but, like Billy Bob Thornton, he’s probably never going to parlay his considerable talent into a reliably bankable presence. And thank God for that.
All that’s to say that while Better Living Through Chemistry isn’t a good movie, at least it tries very hard to be good. You can practically feel the ambition of writer-directors Geoff Moore and David Posamentier humming behind the screen. They’ve thrown a lot at that screen, and some of it has stuck in interesting ways. Unfortunately a lot hasn’t, beginning with the stunt casting of Jane Fonda’s voice. (She narrates, presumably as herself, though if there’s a payoff for this stunt it eludes me. On the other hand, if you had access to Fonda’s voice and could make her say all kinds of bawdy off-color things, could you resist?)
Rockwell does what he can with depressive pharmacist Doug Varney, another suburban milquetoast bound to be led astray by a femme fatale (a blonde Olivia Wilde). Doug is a careful, mild man who has labored for years in the drug store owned by and named for his father-in-law, grouchy Walter Bishop (Ken Howard). As the film opens, Walter is finally retiring and Doug - having bought the old man out - is assuming proprietorship of the store. But a crane is replacing the Bishop’s Pharmacy sign with, uh, another sign that reads Bishop’s Pharmacy? Doug is as perplexed as the audience; Walter explains that there’s a lot of good will attached to the old name. (But why bother changing the sign? And though we’re supposed to understand that Doug defers to Walter because, well, Walter’s an alpha male and he’s a simp, wouldn’t you think they’d have worked this out beforehand?)
We quickly figure out that Doug’s got a lot of First-World problems. His 12-year-old son Ethan (Harrison Holzer) has painted his bedroom windows black and eats crushed Oreos with milk for breakfast. His wife (Michelle Monaghan, wasted) is a workout junkie enamored of New Age platitudes. His life is a comfortably numb parade of genial sufferers to whom he dispenses aid and comfort. But the existential pharmacist cannot heal himself.
Then, when filling in for his irresponsible delivery boy, Doug meets bored trophy wife Elizabeth (Wilde) who means to enlist him in her scheme for happiness, one that film noir fans will instantly recognize. Soon Doug is availing himself of the goodies in his store and breaking bad in some predictable ways. The result is a black comedy that plays like a mash-up of Double Indemnity and American Beauty, albeit one that, even with a 91-minute running time, feels padded and overlong.
Better Living Through Chemistry
81 Cast: Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Michelle Monaghan, Ken Howard, Ray Liotta, Jane Fonda Directors: Geoff Moore, David Posamentier Rating: Not rated Running time: 91 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 03/21/2014
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