MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Better Living Through Chemistry’

better living

Movie: Better Living Through Chemistry
Directed by: Geoff Moore, David Posamentier
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Michelle Monaghan

If you want a lesson in how to waste a fine cast, you could look further than Better Living Through Chemistry. A well-meaning but distinctly uninteresting attempt at humour combining the ensemble talents of Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, and Jane Fonda, it still struggles to be more than the sum of its parts. It offers up a wearily familiar tale about a bored, under-loved 30-something husband and father who decides to liven up his life and personality with the help of an equally bored trophy wife and ready made stash of drugs. Rockwell, the only cast member even remotely served by the script, does his all to bring liveliness and intent to the film, but his efforts are wasted by poor execution and an overall sense of aimlessness.

Doug Varney (Rockwell) has been passively making his way through life for what feels like an eternity. He’s got an emotionless fitness nut of a wife and a 12-year-old son with issues. The only place he finds solace, according to the film’s nameless narrator (Jane Fonda), is in his work as a pharmacist. Doug works for his father-in-law, patiently awaiting the day the latter will retire and he can finally hoist his own name above the chemist’s doors. When making deliveries one day, he meets Elizabeth (Wilde), a glamorous younger woman largely neglected by her husband who’s turned to booze and pills for comfort. She shares some of those comforts with Doug, and the two begin a torrid affair that leads him to question the way he’s living his life.

In much the same manner as the dreaded father/son bonding film, stories about middle-aged men washing up somewhere with the sudden realisation they hate their lives and everyone in it are so commonplace that it takes something truly special for them to stand out. Better Living Through Chemistry offers a madcap extended drugs trip as that USP, but its attempts at making this humorous never quite translate. The film wants to be entertaining but it never involves, drifting rather aimlessly onward with little in the way of momentum or engagement. It’s tempting to lay the blame for this with the characters, as while the script is stuffed with zany caricatures and colourful incidents there’s a profound lack of charisma undermining the final product.

Rockwell is an ever-likeable actor but Doug is a damp squib – a dull and terminally uninteresting character whose ill-advised slide into drug use and extramarital affairs does little to build on his sympathetic qualities. The film may be marketed as a comedy, but there’s precious little amusement to be had in watching the lead gradually turn into an asshole. The characters around him are tropes, primarily deployed as plot devices with no regard given to their actual personalities. Wilde, who only recently called out the “boredom” of one-dimensional female roles in Hollywood, here typifies her complaints as her Elizabeth, cold but fragile, provides an outlet for Doug’s repressed masculinity. She’s a direct counter to his wife Kara, played thanklessly by Michelle Monaghan, who deserves much better than the mediocre parts she often ends up with. A sub-plot involving Doug’s oddball son is poorly developed and a potentially murderous twist ultimately comes to naught, doing little to enhance the limited offerings elsewhere.

The Jane Fonda voiceover calls to mind Desperate Housewives, which I’m sure wasn’t intentional, but more than anything this film feels like an elaborate episode of Jackass. It’s not gross-out (excepting one off-screen incident involving excrement and locker rooms) but it is infantile and incredibly vapid. Unlike that show however, it’s never entertaining, and ultimately falls flat for want of an original script and more focused direction. Ill realised and possibly misunderstood, it’s a sadly wasted opportunity.

SCORE: D

http://youtu.be/qxHPqHIl11w

Review written by Grace Duffy

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