Sam Rockwell can make just about any movie that much better than it ought to be. He has the uncanny ability to be sort of handsome, sort of goofy and sort of dangerous—all at once—with the added benefit of always being able to keep his audience on the edge of our seats, not knowing what to expect. But even Rockwell can’t do much with the material he’s given in Better Living Through Chemistry—although he gives it a game shot.
Written and directed by novice filmmakers Geoff Moore and David Posamentier, Better Living is about a pharmacist, Don Varney (Rockwell), who can solve everybody’s problems, through prescription drugs, except his own. His wife Kara (Michelle Monaghan, in a thankless role) is a true ball-buster who openly humiliates her husband in front of her spin-class disciples. His father-in-law Hank (Ken Howard) never misses an opportunity to make Don feel less than adequate, including not allowing the younger man to change the name of the drugstore he originated after Don purchases it outright. Then Don meets glamorous trophy wife Elizabeth Roberts (Olivia Wilde), who is lonely, possibly manic depressive and open to all sorts of illicit possibilities, such as the ones available in Don’s backroom. Before long, they are engaged in a torrid, pill-induced affair. Of course, nobody notices—Liz’s husband Jack (a subdued Ray Liotta) is never around, and Kara can’t be bothered to even pay attention to her nebbishy mate’s whereabouts, let alone the fact that he’s becoming much more assertive. Only Don’s kid Ethan, a pudgy 12-year-old who exacts revenge on those who bully him at school by rubbing excrement on their lockers, perceives a decided difference in his dad, and the two bond over a night of vandalism.
The plot takes a darkly comic detour into Double Indemnity territory, just as Don’s behavior starts to derail into outright Crazy Town, but Moore and Posamentier don’t seem to have a handle on how to make this transition seamless and plausible. The use of a narrator (Jane Fonda) further hinders what could have been a cynically humorous stab at life in the ’burbs—large expanses of the story are just pages of monologue, as if the writers were so enamored of their scripted words that they couldn’t be bothered to have the characters actually do anything that would convey the same. Rockwell is typically astonishing, beautifully depicting the highs (pun intended) and lows of a complex everyman character, and Wilde is a hoot with an unexpected tinge of vulnerability. They are horribly handicapped, however, by a script, and a filmmaking team, that do not know how to capitalize on the story’s few strengths, let alone how to edit out its many weaknesses.