A pharmacologist who pilfers from his own stash doesn’t make for much of a story. It’s over-the-counter, flat, hypocritical and none-too-interesting. Love & Other Drugs tried to walk that (similar) line by throwing in a satirical skewering of the pharmaceutical biz with a heavy dose of amour while Better Living Through Chemistry tacks into it with a whacky rom-com skew, and as with the launch of any new panacea, the results are mixed, and some even concerning. The diagnosis of which leads directly to the writing/directing team of Geoff Moore and David Posamentier, who treat their cinematic go as an alchemy experiment, crushing in a Body Heat-styled femme fatale element along with pill-popping madness, dysfunctional youth mania and alpha female hen-pecking all blended together under a quirky Wes Anderson-like sheen.
The elixir that the two filmmakers do possess however, is Sam Rockwell, who’s consistently been able to render characters on the brink of madness with convincing aplomb. He plumbed the provocative depths of Chuck Barris’s gonzo faux memoir in George Clooney’s directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and delivered split personalities in Duncan Jones’s Moon. More recently he played an impish big brother figure in The Way, Way Back. As Douglas Varney, Rockwell plays a sheepish man whose realization of the American dream hasn’t quite gone as planned. Knuckled under to his wife Kara (a lean Michelle Monaghan) whose father has recently bequeathed the family pharmacy to him (the rebranding of the store becomes a major sticking point) and with a twelve-year-old son, Ethan (Harrison Holzer), who’s a reclusive angry Goth with fecal issues, Doug has much to contend with. And then there’s Elizabeth (Olivia Wilde), the comely trophy wife who likes her prescriptions filled in person at her large, vacuous manse while a few wine spritzers are consumed.
Needless to say, life in picturesque Woodbury isn’t as tony and tight as all the neatly trimmed hedges and perfect white picket fences would intimate, and, as Doug takes up with Elizabeth and starts digging into his own supply, we get all the inside scoop on people’s dirty laundry from an omniscient Desperate Housewives-esque narrator (Jane Fonda) who holds a deep appreciation for Doug’s vast selection of douches. That’s pretty much how the film goes, from quirky serenity to over-the-top gonzo-ness with Doug reaching his breaking point as the DEA and Kara begin to catch onto his self-destructive shenanigans.
Beyond Rockwell’s anchoring of the film, the two actresses do even more with their two-dimensional roles. Wilde breaks out from her usual indie side and is quite compelling as the object of desire while emanating signs of weary depth underneath Elizabeth’s primped façade. Monaghan, on the other hand, is given less to work with, but is a force nonetheless as the town’s amped-up cycling champ and task master. The synergy of the three goes far, but you often can’t help but pause and imagine what they might have done in a similar setting with more substantial material. There are plenty of fine comedic moments in Better Living, it’s just that the deeper exploration of life, expectations of and pursuit of happiness is as rote and exciting as getting a prescription filled.
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge, MA. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, The Rumpus, Thieves Jargon, Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Geoff Moore, David Posamentier
Writer: Geoff Moore, David Posamentier
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Michelle Monaghan, Jane Fonda, Ray Liotta
Release Date: Mar. 14, 2014