Ah, life in a quiet suburb. The monotony. The temperamental school kids. The pill popping. The murder plots. You know, the stuff we find beneath the surface, or at least the stuff we find beneath the surface in every movie that takes place in the ‘burbs.
Better Living Through Chemistry has all those things, along with a tweaked sense of humor and a lively performance by Sam Rockwell, and turns them into a fun-ish romp with the occasional larf. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but Rockwell is as game as ever, and there’s some sharp acting by the supporting cast that makes up for the decided lack of ingenuity.
Doug Varney (Rockwell) is a mild-mannered pharmacist who buys a shop from his hateful father-in-law. His wife Kara (Michelle Monaghan, who struggles playing a buttoned-up housewife for laughs) is dictatorial, his kid is a malcontent, and Doug lets everyone walk all over him, even his prescription delivery guy.
So one night Doug is delivering the drugs while the prescription guy is out getting soused, and he meets Elizabeth (Olivia Wilde), a barely conscious, miserable beauty. Before long, she and Doug are having an affair, and he’s popping pills that wake him up to (or make him forget) his rotten daily routine.
Elizabeth could be a femme fatale, but Better Living Through Chemistry doesn’t want to be film noir. It wants to be a black comedy. It’s really more of a gray comedy.
To wit: Doug’s idea of getting even with his wife for being a contemptible shit is to down a bunch of uppers and steroids that give him a boost to win a local bike race that she’s dominated five times. (That and the affair, I guess.) He steals her glory; she’s angry. And there’s a silly murder plot too, and of course everything goes awry, but that’s not really the point.
The point is silliness. There's no overt drug message (which is fine) and Doug isn’t a bad guy. It helps that Rockwell strikes the right tone for the blackouts, drugged-up sashays and assaults on his own property. (Imagine Owen Wilson in the part, and be glad Doug isn’t played with his brand of quietly ironic detachment.)
A nice surprise is Norbert Leo Butz—slumming it in the movies instead of winning a third Tony—who steals scenes in a small supporting role as a smart but clumsy DEA agent investigating Doug’s pharmacy for fraud. You know, the pills gotta be counted, and Doug’s been getting super high.
There are some problems. Wilde is, once again, in the kind of thankless role that seems to be her bread and butter when she’s not in the excellent Drinking Buddies. And Jane Fonda provides a pointless voiceover that exists only so the filmmakers may shove her in a scene for a tiny cameo. But Ray Liotta shows up for a couple of moments and underplays nicely, so who says tiny cameos are a bad thing? There are probably worse ways to spend 90 minutes than watching this cast act like idiots.
BETTER LIVING THROUGH CHEMISTRY
Directed by Geoff Moore and David Posamentier
With Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde and Norbert Leo Butz