Dissolute, strung-out and in revolt against adulthood — those screen traits are right in Sam Rockwell’s comic character actor wheelhouse. Yes, he can play it straight and yes he has range. But muss his hair, redden his eyes and hide his razor and you’ve got a poster boy for wasted days and wasted nights.
“Better Living Through Chemistry” has Rockwell playing a pharmacist lured into “getting high on his own supply” by the unhappy trophy wife of a customer played by OIivia Wilde. Since Wilde has made her reputation as temptation incarnate, we get it.
But Doug (Rockwell) has reasons far beyond the Wilde Child’s goodies. He’s in an unhappy marriage with an exercise-aholic harpy (Michelle Monaghan), raising an insolent 12 year-old son (Harrison Holzer) and fending off an overbearing father-in-law (Ken Howard) who just sold him the pharmacy where Doug has put in his time, but who refuses to let Doug change the name of the place from the old man’s name to his.
“Doug had gotten very good at hiding disappointment over the years,” Jane Fonda, as Jane Fonda, narrates.
And that’s where “Better Living” starts to go wrong. Put-upon Doug may revolt, may start a torrid affair with rich, spoiled Elizabeth (Wilde) and start raiding the “candy store” that is his pharmacy, mixing up his chemicals in aid to his virility, his stamina and his efforts to have the life he wants. But this edgy comedy utterly abandons its edge, time and again, through a cloying, self-aware narration written for Fonda, sort of a part-time resident/observer and narrator of Doug’s sad story.
“Anyone can take a pill,” Fonda purrs, “but only a pharmacist knows how to make one.”
Fair enough, but when Jane as Jane starts to comment on Doug’s wife Kara and her mania for cycling and exercise classes, watch out.
“I know a thing or two about working out,” Fonda cracks, and the winking script becomes a painful facial tic.
Every emasculating moment with Kara is balanced with a heated romp with Elizabeth, so that before long Doug and his paramour are talking about solving their mutual “problems” through chemistry. Might Elizabeth’s absentee husband (Ray Liotta) just…go away?
First-time co-writer/directors Geoff Moore and David Posamentier deliver several laugh out loud moments and the odd delicious twist — vandalism as a way of father-son bonding, and performance enhancing drugs played for athletic laughs.
Casting the towering/hulking Ken Howard opposite Rockwell makes the younger actor seem to shrink into a shrimp in their scenes together.
But the cloying narration and the inclusion of Fonda are just warnings for that moment, 70 minutes in, when this comic chemical train goes completely off the rails. Rockwell, Wilde, Monaghan are worth the price of admission, but “Better Living” would have been better off with more chemistry and less cutesy.
MPAA Rating: Unrated, with drug and alcohol abuse, sex, vandalism and profanity worthy of an R.
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Michelle Monaghan, Ken Howard, Ray Liotta
Credits: Written and directed by Geoff Moore and David Posamentier. A Samuel Goldwyn release.
Running time: 1:31