Better Living Through Chemistry: Film Review

Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films
Comic noir doesn't make the most of its stars.

Sam Rockwell plays a pharmacist who begins a druggy affair with Olivia Wilde.

A milquetoast pharmacist decides to "get high on his own supply" in Better Living Through Chemistry, entering a brave new world of confidence, intrigue and hot illicit sex. Geoff Moore and David Posamentier make their writing-directing debut here, enlisting a top-flight cast but not always getting the best from them; amusing but not as funny or suspenseful as it could be, the picture has only modest commercial appeal despite the presence of Sam Rockwell and Olivia Wilde.

Rockwell plays the pill-pusher in question, Douglas Varney, who has just bought the pharmacy he works in from boss Walter Bishop (Ken Howard), who's also the father of his wife, Kara (Michelle Monaghan). Owing his career to his father-in-law would be emasculating enough without the fact that Kara is a caricatured ball-buster — an impatient, hyper-competitive complainer who'd rather be on a bicycle than show her husband any affection or respect. (The part affords Monaghan little opportunity for subtlety.)

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While making deliveries one night, Doug meets Wilde's Elizabeth, a trophy wife whose rich husband is never home. A classic femme fatale (she's even seen, later on, in a telephone booth wearing Stanwyck-worthy shades and trench coat), Elizabeth is soon introducing him to experiences both carnal and chemical; the two fuel afternoon motel trysts with exotic combinations of drugs from Doug's shelves — pills whose absence will be worrisome when the drugstore is audited later by an only slightly dumb DEA agent (Norbert Leo Butz).

Although the transformation Doug undergoes plays to some of Rockwell's strengths — suddenly cocky, he struts into environments where his wife once belittled him and leaves jaws dropping — the film doesn't fully exploit the actor's comedic gifts. And Wilde, so good in Drinking Buddies, has little to do here except look coldly beautiful and introduce the inevitable "Wouldn't it be nice if…" notion that Doug might use his position to give her husband a fatal dose of heart meds, leaving the two to run off with her vast inheritance.

Ray Liotta, appearing in two scenes as Elizabeth's husband, offers a welcome moment of believability in a film whose tone is often hard to pinpoint; the plot to kill him plays as something between actual desperation-fueled noir and clumsy farce. But the picture's strangest ingredient is Jane Fonda, who plays herself and narrates the film in an awkward, omniscient voiceover. When the film eventually works her into the action in a closing-scene cameo, her presence is no more explicable.

Production: Occupant Entertainment

Cast: Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Michelle Monaghan, Ken Howard, Ben Schwartz, Norbert Leo Butz, Ray Liotta, Jane Fonda

Directors-screenwriters: Geoff Moore, David Posamentier

Producers: Felipe Marino, Joe Neurauter

Executive producers: Paul Brett, Keith Calder, Anders Erden, Tim Smith

Director of photography: Tim Suhrstedt

Production designer: Heidi Adams

Costume designer: Bic Owen

Editor: Jonathan Alberts

Music: Andrew Feltenstein, John Nau

No rating, 91 minutes