Like the put-upon pharmacist at its center, the neo-noirish suburban comedy “Better Living Through Chemistry,” co-written and co-directed by Geoff Moore and David Posamentier, is a bit of a cheat — and goes soft in the clutch.
Said druggist Doug Varney (Sam Rockwell) is the henpecked hubby of a scornful fitness nut (a misused Michelle Monaghan), with an angry 12-year-old son (Harrison Holzer) and a controlling father-in-law (Ken Howard). But Doug goes from doormat to Don Juan when new customer Elizabeth (Olivia Wilde), the bored, pill-happy, smoking-hot wife of a wealthy businessman (Ray Liotta), seduces Doug and convinces him to start enjoying his own wares.
Doug’s soon living la vida loca: happily medicated, sexually sated by Elizabeth and turning the tables on past oppressors. He even becomes a cool dad. As for the inevitable close calls the Doug-Elizabeth affair would likely inspire, especially in a town as small as the fictional Woodbury, they’re strangely few.
There is, however, a potential murder plot and a bright-eyed DEA agent (Norbert Leo Butz) nosing around Doug’s pharmacy that threaten to upend things. But will they?
To that end, the film often defies expectations but also winds up sidestepping the kind of trapdoors and quicksand that might have made the ride more exhilarating.
Then there’s the talented Rockwell. The usually edgier actor initially seems out of place playing a schlemiel. But he hits his stride — as does the movie — when the drugs kick in and Doug’s more brazen side appears. Rockwell and Wilde play well off each other, even if the would-be femme fatale’s attraction to Doug proves a bit of a mystery.
Meanwhile, Jane Fonda provides the movie’s story-patching narration and, I’m sad to report, only appears on screen in the briefest cameo. Talk about a cheat.
“Better Living Through Chemistry.” No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes. At Sundance Sunset Cinema in West Hollywood, Laemmle’s Monica 4 in Santa Monica and Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. Also available on VOD.