‘Better Living Through Chemistry’ Review: Sam Rockwell’s Manic Pixie Drug Girl

By  · Published on March 14th, 2014

Despite what Better Living Through Chemistry will try to tell you, Douglas Varney’s life isn’t all that hard. Played by Sam Rockwell, Doug’s biggest issues are an asshole father-in-law, an emasculating wife, a son who’s acting out and a general inability and/or lack of desire to do anything about it. Nonetheless, life’s pretty tough for ol’ Doug, and when his lazy teenage employee (Ben Schwartz) ditches work, Doug is stuck delivering prescriptions from the pharmacy he owns.

One of those prescriptions happens to be for an Elizabeth Roberts (Olivia Wilde) a lovely woman who seems not to have a care in the world. Doug falls for her and they start sleeping together despite both being married to other people, and she introduces him to the wonders of prescription drugs. Soon he’s making his own drug cocktails for the two of them to take, and the chemicals help him adopt her laissez-faire attitude toward life. This leads to many things that he should have done long ago, like standing up to his father-in-law and his wife and finally talking to his son and spending some quality with him. But when a DEA agent starts poking around the pharmacy, Doug’s new found freedom may well be at risk.

Whoever made the decision that what the film really needed was voice-over narration was a moron. Why they felt that need to have the VO come from an off-screen character who is never identified is beyond me. Jane Fonda lends her voice to the film, drawing attention to things the movie could have easily just shown us and often does, making the narration both ill-conceived and redundant. An irritation. Fonda has no connection to the film and the narration isn’t playful or funny enough to justify itself. Having the “character” show up randomly at the end of the film doesn’t help anything, because she’s there for no reason, offers no elucidation on her existence and departs quickly.

Rockwell is obviously the main focus and he generally gets to simply be Sam Rockwell, a cool, laid-back kinda crazy guy for most of the film. It’s not a particularly deep or challenging role for him, but he’s good at it and charming enough to mostly carry the story. Which would be dragging a lot were it not for Rockwell’s charisma. The writing just isn’t sharp enough or funny enough to keep things moving. It’s the type of movie that you grin at and maybe chuckle at a few times but it never quite gets over the hump to really making you laugh out loud.

Poor Olivia Wilde, beautiful though she obviously is, seems a bit off-kilter here. To be fair, much of the problem should be assigned to the script, which seems unsure if the character should be a full on Sharon Stone seductress or a goofy Aubrey Plaza type playmate. Wilde does her best to walk the fine line, but seems far more comfortable on the playful side of the fence and the decision to dye her hair blonde for the role does nothing more than make her seem uncomfortable in her own skin.

The one thing that really stands out in this vanilla film is Broadway actor Norbert Leo Butz as the DEA agent. His character is a perfect blend of understanding buddy, naive rube and stealthy cat to Rockwell’s mouse. While the script certainly favors him, giving him some of the best lines and most clever writing in the film, it’s Butz who makes each line sing. He maximizes his relatively brief screen time and creates tension with his performance. It’s just plain fun to watch.

While movie’s don’t always have to have a point or a moral to them, it’s hard to watch this film without trying to decipher what exactly the filmmakers were trying to do. It doesn’t seem like most people would set out to make a film that espouses all the good points of relying on drugs to make you the person you want to be and yet, whether that was their intention or not, the film seems to be saying that to some degree. Doug finally does all the things he should have been doing in the first place, including being a decent dad and enjoying spending time with his son, only after he starts screwing Elizabeth and popping pills all day long. There’s a complex identity question here, but while the film itself is too lazy in its execution to come off as a full on endorsement, it’s just enough to make you wonder what the hell they wanted people to think when the credits rolled.

Ultimately Better Living Through Chemistry is a decent film that isn’t going to make any waves one way or the other. It’s mildly amusing throughout but never truly funny. It does have a somewhat surprising turn in the third act, but it’s not enough to save it and it only serves to further compound any sort of point that the film might have been trying to make. This is the kind of movie built for Sunday afternoons, that kind you might see on cable while flipping through channels, recognize the actors but not the title and end up watching the whole thing before you realize you’ve made the decision to do so. Unfortunately for the filmmakers, the whole thing will – and should – be forgotten with the next channel switch.

The Upside: Rockwell does fine work, Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz shines, love seeing Jean Ralphio from Parks and Rec get work, this is a decently amusing diversion

The Downside: The voice-over narration is terrible, Wilde doesn’t quite pull off the steamy seductress, and the film itself is pretty slight and not consistently funny enough to get people to care

On the Side: Jennifer Garner was initially cast in the Olivia Wilde role, which is interesting because I can think of few beautiful actresses who would be almost completely unbelievable in the role of seductress, but damn if Jennifer Garner doesn’t take the cake. She’s the quintessential soccer mom.