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movie review

An onscreen ‘Chemistry’ class

Olivia Wilde and Sam Rock-well (above) and Michelle Monaghan (left) in “Better Living Through Chemistry.”

BILL GRAY/SAMUEL GOLDWYN FILMS

Olivia Wilde and Sam Rock-well in “Better Living Through Chemistry.”

Maybe writer-directors Geoff Moore and David Posamentier were sampling some of the mind-numbing products featured in their black comedy, “Better Living Through Chemistry,” which might account for its lack of wit, imagination, or other cerebral effort. Fortunately for them, some members of the surprisingly high-caliber cast serve as enablers and keep the film from bottoming out.

Sam Rockwell, for example, brings far more energy and depth to the cartoonish role of Doug Varney than it deserves. He’s a milksop pharmacist who meekly endures abuse from everyone, including his fitness freak, contemptuous wife, Kara (Michelle Monaghan), his spoiled, malevolent 12-year-old son, Ethan (Harrison Holzer), and his pompous father-in-law, Walter (Ken Howard), who sold him his pharmacy but in a coup de grâce of contempt refused to take his own name off the sign. In one typical scene exemplifying Doug’s domestic situation, Kara stands on her head in a yoga pose as Doug suggests they do something about Ethan’s problems (among other things, he’s been smearing his excrement on lockers at school). “It’s important that we remain supportive,” she says, “even if his interests are different from ours.”

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Emasculated by his termagant of a wife, Doug finds relief with another female stereotype, the multiply-addicted, manipulative slut. He delivers a large order of pharmaceuticals to Elizabeth Roberts (Olivia Wilde), who turns out to be a gorgeous blonde in a flimsy white robe drinking a martini. They are instantly drawn to each other, he for the thrill of transgression, she perhaps for the ready access to pills. In short order they are coupling like bunnies, with Doug fueling their binge with samples from his own pharmaceutical inventory.

The theme of the suppressed, conformist male lured by a beautiful woman into bad behavior has a distinguished pedigree, from Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” (1944) to Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild” (1986) and beyond. But Moore and Posamentier are oblivious to the basics of effective narrative, conveying half the plot in slide show-like montages with cheap juxtapositions (Doug and Elizabeth going at it; cut to ceramic tchotchkes of rutting pigs) and a wall-to-wall, achingly inane voice-over delivered, it turns out, by a “surprise” narrator.

Were it not for Rockwell, who gets more laughs from his hair than do any of the film’s lines of dialogue, or the element of vulnerability that Wilde injects into her crude caricature of a part, or even Norbert Leo Butz’s menacing goofiness as a DEA agent, this film would have been as much fun as a blinding hangover. One hopes that, for their own good, when any of these actors are offered a script like this again, they’ll have the sense to just say no.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.
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