Imagine being in a position to fix everyone’s life but your own. That’s the position slightly disgruntled pharmacist Doug Varney (Sam Rockwell) is currently in. He gives people pills in order to fix their troubles, but he can’t do anything about his own life. His marriage is less than happy — he and his wife (Michelle Monaghan) are rarely romantic — his son (Harrison Holzer) seems to be turning out worse than you’d hope, and even though he now owns the pharmacy after his father-in-law (Ken Howard) retired and sold the place, he can’t change its name.
Doug is a nice guy but he’s not the least bit assertive. It makes sense, I suppose, when a flirtatious “trophy wife” (Olivia Wilde) enters his store to fill numerous prescriptions, that he’s taken with her and almost instantly begins an affair. She forces his hand, but also teaches him just how wonderful small little pills can be. Doug has access to all sorts, and they seemingly try just about all of them. But, like the ads on television for almost any medication, eventually the side effects have to show up. A good thing can’t last forever.
The film takes place in small town America, where apparently the biggest event in the city is a bicycle race that Doug’s wife has won several of the last few years. The second you learn this, you’re likely going to be able to figure out that a later scene will have Doug and his wife racing against one another. Why? Because the film seems to revel in this sort of thing. If it brings something up even once, it’s likely “foreshadowing.” Or just being predictable. One or the other.
Tonally and structurally, Better Living Through Chemistry struggles to find consistency. The film is primarily concerned with concocting a way for Doug to stop being everyone else’s doormat, which is a something we’ve seen numerous times on film. We’ve also seen films about falling apart marriages, and about pharmacists starting to indulge in their own supply. This is a mix-and-match, and it never really finds its own voice, always feeling like a lesser version of other movies.
I’m kind of surprised that, even with all of the drugs the characters ingest, none of them ever seem to have any health issues. The only way the film tells us that doing what Doug does is bad is from a legal standpoint. A somewhat inept DEA Agent (Norbert Leo Butz) comes sniffing around the drug store to look for any discrepancies between the order forms and the actual supply. That’s how the film condemns the abuse. And even that has a less than damning final message — at least, for our main cast of characters.
I feel like there should have been to the entire film. Deeper characters that don’t just border on clichés, a more involving story, more laughs or better drama — the film just sits around, occasionally tosses something interesting our way, but in general is less than interesting. It has all of these elements to make a good movie, but it’s just … not entertaining, engaging, or thoughtful. I suppose that’s why it’s struggling to get even a limited theatrical release. It’s just not good enough, even with all the talent in front of the camera.
Sam Rockwell is one of the greatest actors currently working. That’s been said so often it’s almost a redundant statement. He steals scenes in almost every film he’s in. This is not one of those times. For the most part, he looks bored in Better Living Through Chemistry. Even during some of the drug-fueled sections, he doesn’t look interested or committed to the project, which is a big surprise coming from someone like him.
The supporting cast does little better. Michelle Monaghan isn’t in the film that much, and when she is, her one-note “evil wife” character is too silly to take seriously. Olivia Wilde’s sole purpose is to look attractive — something she doesn’t have any trouble pulling off. Ray Liotta is here for a couple of scenes, and Jane Fonda narrates and has a cameo right at the end, which provides the film’s largest laugh. The kid, Harrison Holzer, is annoying by virtue of not being a good child actor (or, at least he isn’t here). Ken Howard is an afterthought.
Better Living Through Chemistry is uncompelling, uninteresting, and un-something-else. It’s a mix-and-match of genres but comes across as too hollow to make any portion of it particularly worth seeing. That can happen to first-time writers and directors, which is exactly what the writing/directing team of Geoff Moore and David Posamentier are. They have a strong cast who look lost and bored, and a story that’s not particularly compelling or sure of itself. You can do better things with your time than watching Better Living Through Chemistry.