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Better Living Through Chemistry

Woodbury New York, a quiet, affluent community where everyone and everything seems bent on emasculating pharmacist Doug Varney (Sam Rockwell). His spoiled wife Kara (Michelle Monaghan) is more interested in her marathon biking partners than in him. His father-in-law (Ken Howard) has finally retired and signed over his drugstore to Doug, but he refuses to take his name off it. And he wants to take over the raising of Doug’s teenage son Ethan (Harrison Holzer), who seldom emerges from his black-painted bedroom. Even Doug’s employees only pretend—just barely—to do what he tells them.

So when a neglected young trophy wife whose diet of mood-adjusting drugs is singlehandedly supporting his business decides that Doug is what she needs to put a little spice into her life, who is he to argue? Not only does Mrs. Roberts (Olivia Wilde) revive Doug’s nearly extinct sex life, she convinces him to start enjoying some of the chemical joy he’s been providing to his neighbors, and even to experiment with mixing up some combinations of his own.

Stories that start like this seldom end well, whether they veer into noir territory or chart with comic glee the disintegration of the hero’s comfy lifestyle. But debuting writing-directing team Geoff Moore and David Posamentier don’t seem to have any idea where they want to go with this tale of a milquetoast asserting himself.

It makes a half-hearted feint into Double Indemnity territory in the third act, perhaps out of desperation in a plot that has nowhere else to go. Is it satirically trying to subvert our notions of middle-class morality? If so, the sequences of Doug breaking bad are far too tame.

And if Moore and Posamentier want nothing more than to make audiences laugh, they fail worst of all at that. Their ear for dirty talk makes you cringe, and there are some lines here that you would think professional actors would refuse to read. I’m thinking in particular of Monaghan’s reaction when the high school principal tells her that her son has been terrorizing other students by smearing their lockers with his feces: “Are you trying to suggest that my son is some sort of Unishitter?” Even worse is a “humorous” scene of spousal rape: Apparently it’s supposed to be okay because eventually she enjoys it.

Ray Liotta shows up briefly to remind us of a much better movie in this vein, Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild. And in a touch that borders on the surreal, Jane Fonda narrates the movie as herself, a veteran Hollywood superstar commenting as an occasional resident of the town. It feels like a last-minute addition to try to explain scenes that should have been clear from the dialogue and action. It’s a desperation tactic that doesn’t save this from being a comic dud.

Watch the trailer for Better Living Through Chemistry

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