Better Living Through Chemistry
Opens Fri., March 14 at Sundance Cinemas and SIFF Cinema Uptown. Not rated. 91 minutes.
Sam Rockwell sightings are like spotting a wobbling comet in some oblique, unpredictable orbit. You’re never sure why he’ll show up in this movie or that, seldom as the star, and never following the obvious trajectory. The Way, Way Back gave him a surprise hit last summer, when he wore his teen-mentorship lightly. Not long thereafter, he portrayed a different kind of loner in A Single Shot, and now he plays a disaffected suburban pharmacist who’s also at odds with society. Doug Varney, like so many of Rockwell’s characters, isn’t a joiner; he’s something of a stranger to his wife (Michelle Monaghan), a health fanatic and cyclist, and teen son (Harrison Holzer), a chubby pariah at school. And another thing about Doug, also common to Rockwell’s casting: He’s a suggestible sort, a bit of a weakling, a dupe waiting for a woman to lead him astray—a femme fatale, if you will.
This brings us to Olivia Wilde as pill-popping trophy wife Elizabeth, who proves to be Doug’s undoing. Written and directed by Geoff Moore and David Posamentier, Better Living is patently modeled on old film noirs like Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice, though it’s given an entirely larky, comic spin. Murder is discussed (here’s Ray Liotta as Elizabeth’s rich husband), crimes are committed, and there’s even a doped-up bicycle race in which Doug makes like Lance Armstrong. Still, the tone is as light as a trip to Ikea (though it gains a little texture from Jane Fonda’s droll, purring narration).
For a while, high on his own pills, power, and adultery, Doug can crow, “I’m the man behind the curtain, the wizard! I pull the strings!” But the enjoyably shallow Better Living pulls back from any real transgression or black comedy. (Recall The Details for a genuinely dark-comic take on similar material.) It’s like a John Cheever story scrubbed of the angst or consequences. On the plus side, however, the movie gives Rockwell room to dance; and for that we must be grateful.