"May I say that this pharmacy has the most impressive collection of douches I've ever seen."
The first law of motion pictures should read as follows: "If Sam Rockwell is in this film, I shall watch it." Not everyone abides by this rule, but the world would be a better place if they did. Rockwell's ability to elevate any material, no matter how good it is on the page, makes him the most dynamic actor working. He makes not so great films watchable (A Single Shot) and good films better (The Way, Way Back), and while a part of me wishes he was a household name, I'm somewhat enamored by the fact that he is a bit of a hidden commodity. It makes those of us who genuinely enjoy his work feel like we're in an exclusive club that knows more than everyone else. Thankfully the release of his latest film, Better Living Through Chemistry, is being simultaneously done in theaters and on demand, making it easier than ever to get your Sam Rockwell fix...
Doug Varney (Rockwell) is a mild mannered pharmacist living in a bland suburban town where nothing ever changes. His wife Kara (Michelle Monaghan) is a perfectionist who is obsessed with keeping Doug on a tight leash and never allowing him to deviate from his expected duties as a husband and bread winner for the family. Their son Ethan (Harrison Holzer) is having trouble at school and neither of his parents connect with him, and Doug's father-in-law (Ken Howard) has just sold Doug the pharmacy he's run for a number of years, yet refuses to let Doug rename it. In other words, Doug is a fairly stereotypical put upon twenty-first century man.
All of that changes when Doug is forced to do the pharmaceutical deliveries one night, and he crosses paths with Elizabeth (Olivia Wilde), the trophy wife of a wealthy industrialist (Ray Liotta). Doug & Elizabeth begin a torrid affair, and Elizabeth convinces Doug to begin sampling his own supply of drugs, opening up a whole new world for Doug. The affair gets really heavy when they concoct a plan to switch her husband's prescriptions in hopes of killing him, so they can start a new life together, but things get really complicated for Doug when a DEA Agent (Norbert Leo Butz) begins a routine investigation into Doug's pharmacy.
Better Living Through Chemistry can only benefit from extremely low expectations. While it's not a bad movie, it's such lightweight fluff that it's hard to consider it a good one either. It hits all of the expected beats for a mid-life suburban dad crisis film, and features very little in the way of surprises. By the time the complications begin piling up, it's entirely too predictable to call groundbreaking or innovative, and it more or less plays out exactly how you expect. While there were a few deviations from this predictability, particularly in the last ten minutes or so, it refuses to do anything too bold or shocking and thereby failing to make itself distinguishable from the dozens of other films whose ranks it seeks to join.
The filmmakers clearly didn't trust themselves enough to craft situational humor, so they decided to tack on a narration by Jane Fonda that mainly relies on the formula of a distinguished actress saying dirty words and phrases equaling comedy gold. I admit that hearing Fonda say things like "balls deep" made me giggle, but it's the sort of cheap and unsatisfying laughter that such a formula induces, and that is ultimately the largest problem with the entire film. It seeks to be shocking and edgy when at its core, it's just as bland and safe as the suburban landscape it seeks to skewer. Even a subplot involving Doug bonding with his son over vandalism feels more obligatory than natural, and most definitely felt like an opportunity for the filmmakers to use a cover of "Shimmy Shimmy Ya" by a choir of children, rather than a free flowing extension of their characters' arcs.
As if it hadn't gone without saying, Sam Rockwell is a godsend for material this shallow. His ability to turn even the most ham-fisted dialogue into comedy gold makes him a national treasure. He transcends the material in such a way as to make it seem infinitely better than it is, lulling you into a false sense of security that the film is actually good. He's in nearly every scene of the film, meaning that the filmmakers knew how much he added to their script. Had it been Jeremy Renner, who was originally cast in the role, the film would have been a complete wash. That's not a slight against Renner, but he can't make a mountain out of a molehill the way Rockwell can.
The rest of the cast is very good, showing that the writer/directors at least knew enough to cast good actors that would make the most out of their subpar script. Wilde, Monaghan, Howard, Liotta, Butz, and especially young Harrison Holzer all do a very good job despite their woefully one-dimensional characters. Ben Schwartz is also good, if underutilized, as the pharmacy delivery boy. It's a real shame that the script is so flat and unimaginative, because one can imagine what this cast could have done with great material.
While it's not terrible, Better Living Through Chemistry reeks of mediocrity. First time writer/directors Geoff Moore and David Posamentier clearly have a lot of ideas, it's just that their execution leaves much to be desired. It's a decent enough time waster, and Rockwell completists will get their rocks off on his hyperkinetic performance, but it's hard to recommend it without the major caveats already mentioned. I suppose if you got together a group of friends and each chipped in a buck to stream it, you'd most assuredly get your money's worth. The film is playing in select cities, and is available to stream via Amazon, M-GO, Vudu, and other on demand services. Just adjust your expectations accordingly as the film is not going to blow your mind.
GO Rating: 2.5/5