Better Living Through Chemistry

Movie Information

The Story: A timid, henpecked pharamacist falls under the spell of a bored femme fatale. The Lowdown: A somewhat clever dark comedy that falls prey to predictability, but is kept afloat by Sam Rockwell's performance.
Genre: Dark Comedy
Director: Geoff Moore, David Posamentier
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Michelle Monaghan, Ray Liotta, Ken Howard, Ben Schwartz, Jane Fonda
Rated: NR

Better Living Through Chemistry — which has nothing to do with the old Dupont slogan — is one of those indie films that come out of nowhere. In this case, that also seems to be true of its co-writer/co-director team. Neither Geoff Moore nor David Posamentier have any priors on their records. They seem to have appeared like genies from a bottle — yet they managed to get a not-unimpressive cast for their debut film. According to, Jeremy Renner was originally cast as the lead, but Renner dropped out and Sam Rockwell stepped in. Messrs. Moore and Posamentier may not realize it, but that change is almost entirely what is keeping their little movie afloat. Oh, Better Living Through Chemistry is agreeable enough on its own merits — despite a screenplay that could serve as a textbook definition of predictable — but Rockwell’s presence and performance raises it to another level. He accounts for at least one star of my review.

Sam Rockwell is one of those not-quite-a-star performers who can make any movie better just by being in it, especially if he’s the lead. Rockwell has an effortless appeal (and not just because he’ll drop his trousers with very little provocation). He inexplicably manages to be geeky, cool and sexy, all at the same time. Those are exactly the qualities called for in Douglas Varney, the film’s nebbishy pharmacist who breaks free from his constraints. Douglas is brow-beaten by his controlling wife, Kara (Michelle Monaghan), gets zero respect from his son (Harrison Holzer) and is completely dismissed and belittled by his father-in-law (Ken Howard). The only one who seems to have a clue about him is the film’s narrator (who also functions as a guest star). The film opens with yet another in a series of disappointments when he discovers that complete ownership of his father-in-law’s pharmacy does not include changing the store name from Bishop’s to Varney’s. This is exactly how his life runs.

All this is about to change. When his fairly worthless and drug-addled delivery man, Noah (TV actor Ben Schwartz), fails to make his deliveries, Douglas takes on the chore himself. This brings him into contact with a somewhat drunk, on-the-make, femme-fatale trophy wife, Elizabeth Roberts (Olivia Wilde). She’s attracted (not in the least because he’s a pharmacist). He’s terrified, but they keep seeing each other here and there until the inevitable happens. Soon he’s experiencing a life (and a relationship) he couldn’t have imagined, mixing elaborate drug cocktails for the two of them and asserting himself in unthinkable ways. Since Douglas’ wife pays no attention to him and Elizabeth’s husband is never home, the affair is much easier than you might think. But he hasn’t reckoned on the arrival of a pill-counting DEA agent (Norbert Leo Butz, Higher Ground), who can’t help but notice that the inventory and the prescriptions don’t add up.

In the midst of all this, Douglas bonds with his son, outgrows his wife and generally becomes his own man. There are a few plot twists that you almost certainly will see coming and a resolution that is more satisfying than surprising. The problem is that the script so carefully sets up its twists that they scarcely qualify as such. This doesn’t keep them from being agreeable, but they are too much like clockwork. What does work is Sam Rockwell and the delights of his worm-turns moments — not to mention his shrewd transition from perpetual loser to a real person by easy increments. The movie is only so-so, but he makes it something else. Not Rated but contains sex, nudity, language and copious amounts of drugs.

Playing at Carolina Cinemas.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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4 thoughts on “Better Living Through Chemistry

  1. Edwin Arnaudin

    Seems like you, me, and *gulp* Rex Reed are about the only ones who enjoyed this movie.

    If you like Sam Rockwell, you will like this movie. He is highly Rockwellian in it.

  2. Ken Hanke

    You left out Stephen Holden, Brian Orndorf, Susan Granger, and Harvey Karten.

  3. Edwin Arnaudin

    They’re covered in “about.” Also, I’d only looked at MetaCritic; now I’ve seen the tomatoers.

  4. Ken Hanke

    I don’t do MetaCritic. Whenever I see the word “meta” my immediate instinct is to cross the street to avoid it.

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