Written and directed by Geoff Moore and David Posamentier
Better Living Through Chemistry flirts with danger from its opening moments, in which a narrator first says that while each of us can’t help everyone, everyone can help someone, and follows it up by saying that our lead character would dismiss that sentiment as fortune-cookie foolishness. That character, portrayed by Sam Rockwell, who grows more Sam Rockwell-esque by the minute here, would be right to do so, but the film he occupies essentially embraces that sentiment, if to a slightly amoral extent. Better Living Through Chemistry is, seemingly, a bit desperate to both occupy the same satiric subgenre as American Beauty and to be so emphatically unique among other American Beauty-esque films that it’s unable to fully achieve either goal in the end.
Rockwell is Douglas Varney, an “authentically nice guy” living in the idyllic town of Woodbury as its pharmacist. He’s taken over the business from his domineering father-in-law (Ken Howard), but is unable to assert himself at work or at home, where his ultracompetitive wife (Michelle Monaghan, in a mostly nice change of pace from her typical roles) rolls over him when dealing with issues in the bedroom or with their grumpy soon-to-be-teenage son. One day, Douglas delivers some medications to a gorgeous stranger named Elizabeth (Olivia Wilde), and almost instantly, they begin a torrid affair that escalates when she encourages him to sample some of his pharmaceutical supply, thus inspiring him to live his life in a vastly different way.
There are moments during Douglas and Elizabeth’s coupling (which grows more passionate and untraditional) when it seems like Better Living Through Chemistry may be inching into the genre of noir. Is Douglas being played by this femme fatale? Funny how their musings on leaving town with all of her apparent ne’er-do-well husband’s riches coincides with the introduction of a nosy DEA agent (Norbert Leo Butz), whose folksy personality seems perfectly designed to put Douglas at ease right before he gets destroyed. But the script, by co-directors Geoff Moore and David Posamentier, has so many subplots to handle that Elizabeth and her sultry allure are put on the backburner so Douglas can reconnect with his son, or sabotage his wife’s attempts to win an annual bike race, and so on. The film does have its share of quirky moments, the chief of which is that the aforementioned narrator is Jane Fonda. As in, Jane Fonda functions as the narrator, and she’s playing herself, thus inspiring the following, sadly unanswered question: “Why the hell is Jane Fonda narrating this movie?” This is, at first, a funny gambit, because, hey, how often do you see a movie narrated by an iconic actress playing herself; after a while, the narration gets in the way, as in a montage where we see Douglas changing rapidly, almost Pygmalion-style, under Elizabeth’s tutelage in a manner of seconds. Not only would it be a bit more logical to hear this from Douglas’ point of view, but why not allow him a bit more control over his own story?
Rockwell is, at first, somewhat wrong for such a henpecked, repressed character, but once Douglas takes for himself from his ostensible drug stash, he gets to be suitably goofy and wild. At the very least, as soon as Douglas becomes more assertive—lazily described at various points as becoming “a man”—Rockwell is allowed to let loose somewhat. And as the new temptress in town, Wilde works well, though it sometimes feels like certain aspects of her character, or simply whole sequences, were left on the cutting room floor. She and Rockwell have a solid chemistry, but in a 90-minute movie with so many various ways in which Douglas’ life is spiraling out of control, she’s only got so much to do. Monaghan, at least, is given a more ferocious character to play than she often does (even on the recent HBO drama True Detective, where she frequently felt underutilized). But in one troubling late scene, when Douglas all but forces himself on her—she doesn’t literally say no, but is clearly against it at first—her storyline grows more disturbing than the movie is willing to comment on.
There are a number of solid aspects to Better Living Through Chemistry that never congeal into an equally solid whole. A good chunk of the basic story has been played out numerous times in the past, and it’s thanks to Sam Rockwell that any of it comes close to working. But in spite of the writers/directors’ sometimes cutesy attempts to make this movie stand out from other suburban dramedies about middle-aged men learning to grow a pair, this story is both too familiar and somewhat toothless. Whatever faults there may be to American Beauty or others of its ilk, they aren’t stories wrapped up surprisingly tightly with a bow, whereas Better Living Through Chemistry wants merely to flirt with danger instead of give in entirely, before backing away into the safety of an unearned happy ending.
– Josh Spiegel