Judge Jim Thomas was surprised this movie didn't turn out to be about him.
Happiness has no formula.
There is a moment, about halfway through Universal's Better Living Through Chemistry, where the movie takes a turn towards Body Heat territory, and just for a moment, there's a glimpse of a promising dark comedy. Unfortunately, that glimpse is about all we get, and we're left with a cheat of an ending and an excellent, albeit wasted, performance from Sam Rockwell.
Facts of the Case
Doug Varney (Rockwell) runs a pharmacy in the little town of Woodbury. He's saddled with a wife (Michelle Monaghan, Source Code) who's more interested in collecting cycling trophies than in him, an overbearing father-in-law (Ken Howard, Michael Clayton) who tells Doug how he should run the pharmacy, and a son (Harrison Holzer, Sex Tape) suspected of smearing crap on the school walls. Doug's life takes a turn for the different when he encounters Elizabeth (Olivia Wilde, Her), a bored trophy wife who relies on booze and pills to keep her spirits up. Improbably, they end up having a torrid affair, with Elizabeth teaching him (among other things) just how much fun having full access to a pharmacy can be.
Sex and drugs can change a guy, you know? Sure enough, Doug really starts to cut loose, living large, kicking ass, and not even caring enough to take names. Two events threaten Doug's newfound chemical bliss: a DEA agent (Norbert Leo Butz—that's his real name, swear to God, and he's won two Tony Awards) shows up to audit his drug inventory, and Elizabeth makes an offhand remark about how nice it would be if "something" were to happen to her husband (Ray Liotta, Goodfellas).
You know where this is heading, don't you? Eh, maybe not.
Chemistry starts out so strong, with cool opening credits, a slightly WTF narration by Jane Fonda, and the utter geniality of Sam Rockwell. It's all undone by a screenplay that ultimately can't decide what it wants to be, coupled with very shoddy characterization.
Let's start with the second. There are a lot of stereotypes in play here. Doug as the overwhelmed nebbish with the indifferent wife, troubled son, and overbearing father-in-law; these are tried and true Hollywood tropes. If you're going to bring them out, you'd best do something memorable with them. Sadly, the writing/directing tandem of Geoff Moore and David Posamentier, in their first production, do nothing with the wife and father in law—you could put in just about anyone in the roles and achieve the same effect. To his credit, Rockwell flings himself into the role with abandon, and he singlehandedly keeps the movie watchable, whether by himself or working with another character.
The screenplay problems are to an extent illustrated by Elizabeth's character. At one point in the movie, they are clearly going for a Body Heat/Double Indemnity vibe. While Olivia Wilde exudes the sexy, she never—never—exudes femme fatale danger, even when she's talking to Doug about killing her husband. In Body Heat, one look at Kathleen Turner and the alarms go off, and John Hurt's brain is screaming, "Dude, no matter how good that package looks, get the hell out of there, Will Robinson, DANGER, DANGER, DANGER!!!" Ditto Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity: Fred McMurray knows she's trouble the moment he lays eyes on her—but he just can't help himself. That element is never there, undermining the plot. Elizabeth mentions the idea in passing, but it's Doug who decides to move forward. Throughout everything, Elizabeth comes across as nice and sweet—which is really at odds which the image of a woman who relies on booze and drugs to get by. Without that "Won't you come into my parlor?" vibe from Elizabeth, it's Doug who becomes the primary instigator of the murder plot.
Still, it's the ending that undoes the movie. The fact that it fails is irrelevant—he was perfectly content with taking the life of an innocent human being. So when the ending rolls around and Doug emerges scot-free, with a new lease on life (this time, presumably, drug-free), it doesn't ring true. He's fallen deeper and deeper into a pit of depravity, and suddenly, he's all better and is ready to be assertive and take charge of his life. It's a cheap ending, one that arises from convenience rather than any narrative progression.
As noted, Rockwell turns in solid work here. Time and again he has demonstrated an immense talent, and with just about anyone else in the role the movie would probably be unwatchable. Norbert Leo Butz (it's just fun typing that out) does well as a DEA agent trying to sort out the mess at the pharmacy; he plays well off Rockwell. Olivia Wilde…hell, I don't know. She has great chemistry with Rockwell, solid comedic timing, but she comes across as too sweet for the character. Harrison Holzer does pretty good work as Doug's troubled son, but the rest of the cast can't get past the weak writing. The exception is Jane Fonda; her narration is has a goofy, earthy charm to it, and her brief appearance is priceless.
Technically, the disc is pretty solid. It's got Universal's generic menu system, but don't hold that against it. The video is pristine, with excellent saturation and clarity. The DTS-HD audio track is equally solid, though this is not a movie that is going to test anyone's home theater. There are no extras, aside from an UltraViolet digital download copy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As was noted earlier, there are a lot of good things going on here, chief among them being Sam Rockwell. The opening credits are also cool—clay dioramas featuring different sections of the town—and as the credits progress, little tawdry details begin to emerge. Inventive and clever, it sets the stage for the film nicely.
Trivia: Pre-production began in 2010 with Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Garner in the leads, with Judi Dench as the narrator, but production delays forced them to recast. The movie saw a very limited theatrical release one month ahead of Better Living Through Chemistry (Blu-ray).
Better Living Through Chemistry is a movie with a severe identity crisis, never really deciding what genre it wants to be. The result is a number of interesting scenes, held together almost solely by the raw magnetism of Sam Rockwell.
Guilty of wasting a ridiculous amount of talent.
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