There isn’t a pharmaceutical cocktail powerful enough to improve the dreadful comedy of “Better Living Through Chemistry.” Squandering a committed lead performance from Sam Rockwell, the feature debut of development execs-turned-filmmakers Geoff Moore and David Posamentier treats routine suburban malaise with an overdose of glib indie cliches. Without fest exposure or critical support, Samuel Goldwyn Films’ limited theatrical release on March 14 is just advertising for the simultaneous VOD bow.
Affable pharmacist Doug Varney (Sam Rockwell) sails through life doing exactly as he’s told. His type-A wife, Kara (Michelle Monaghan), runs the household when she’s not teaching spin classes or training for the next local cycling race, and his domineering father-in-law, Walter (Ken Howard), keeps a tight leash on the pharmacy where Doug works even after retirement. Doug can’t even muster the courage to confront his 12-year-old son, Ethan (Harrison Holzer), about the boy’s increasingly antisocial behavior (which Kara defends as kids being kids).
Obviously something or someone needs to snap Doug out of his sad-sack white-guy stupor. That someone turns out to be dissatisfied trophy wife Elizabeth (Olivia Wilde), whom Doug meets cute on a house call as she lounges in a skimpy negligee, a cigarette in her mouth and a drink in her hand. Elizabeth immediately wants to jump Doug’s bones, and he barely puts up a fight. She also encourages him to “get high on (his) own supply,” and their affair quickly spirals into a giddy drug-fueled romp through Doug’s prescription candy store. It’s not long before the star-crossed pair are mulling what to do about Elizabeth’s rich hubby (Ray Liotta, arriving late and leaving early), and giggle their way into a potentially very real murder plot like a scene out of a misguided film-noir parody.
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Twists like that suggest a more biting, ballsy black comedy could have been in the works here, but Moore and Posamentier keep softening the edges at every turn. Sometimes the overriding dedication to middlebrow sentiment pays off — as in Doug’s sweet bad-boy bonding session with his ninja-loving son (nicely played by newcomer Holzer) — but more often it simply clashes with the film’s snide treatment of broadly drawn caricatures like Kara and Walter.
For some inexplicable (and decidedly unfunny) reason, the entire pic is narrated by Jane Fonda — as herself. From purring the ingredients of Doug’s psychotropic concoctions to dropping raunchy lingo like “balls deep,” she’s clearly game for anything. But winking references to her workout-queen history aside, it’s baffling why anyone thought this was a good idea. Instead it’s the most jarringly facile conceit in a film full of them.
Although he clearly deserves better, the ever-charismatic Rockwell gives the film his all — especially relishing Doug’s transformation from meek pushover to pill-popping wild man to self-destructive paranoid mess (before the de rigueur happy ending). The supporting cast is generally wasted (any critics of Monaghan’s somewhat undervalued turn on HBO’s “True Detective” should get a load of the one-dimensional shrew she’s saddled with here), though Wilde finds a few nuanced moments in Elizabeth’s eagerness to escape, and stage vet Norbert Leo Butz brings a graceful comedic touch to his role as a clumsy DEA agent.
It’s worth noting that early in the process, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Garner were committed to playing Doug and Elizabeth, and Judi Dench had signed on as the narrator. Fortunately for all, production delays necessitated the casting changes.
Tech credits are sufficient, though Logan’s creative opening title sequence — featuring picaresque suburban scenes with miniature clay figures — may raise expectations too high in light of what’s to follow.