Sam Rockwell is dead on the inside and manic on the outside.
Who knew Olivia Wilde was so funny? She's a comic delight in the uneven satire Better Living Through Chemistry, in which she plays a bored, pill-popping trophy wife. She delivers wisecracks with zeal and is hilariously frenetic in her many lovemaking scenes with Sam Rockwell. I know her best from her work in Tron: Legacy, which wasn't an actors' showcase. So her excellent turn in the new film is a welcome surprise.
I wish there were more of her. The movie feels slack when she's not around. This is the debut feature by the writing and directing team of Geoff Moore and David Posamentier, who never quite get a handle on the tone. Better Living Through Chemistry works well when it is a sly sendup of America's obsession with prescription drugs, less well when the comedy turns broad. Some scenes, and even some of the characters, might as well be from a different movie.
In the opening montage, we meet Doug (Rockwell), a pharmacist who is enthusiastic about helping the people of his small town. He is sad at home. His teenage kid Ethan (Harrison Holzer) is in trouble at school, and his fitness-obsessed wife (Michelle Monaghan, from True Detective) is cold and distant. In early scenes, Rockwell does a fine job conveying Doug's inner deadness. Like Tom Ewell in The Seven Year Itch, Doug could use a change. Change arrives in the form of Elizabeth (Wilde), who encourages Doug to sample his wares. What follows is a pill-induced sex frenzy, and here is where we get manic Sam Rockwell. If you've seen virtually any of his films, you know manic Sam Rockwell. Before long, the two hatch a plan to off her rich husband (Ray Liotta).
So far, so good. But midway through, the film bogs down with some wildly unlikely sequences. In one, Doug dopes up before competing in a bicycle road race, and in another, Doug and Ethan dress as ninjas and vandalize the pharmacy. At this point I was reminded of another film, the 1980 comedy 9 to 5. It also begins promisingly as a spoof of a timely topic, women in the workplace, and also veers off course with improbable slapstick. Like 9 to 5, Better Living Through Chemistry even features Jane Fonda, who narrates.
Better Living Through Chemistry never figures out what it has to say about the pharmaceutical boom, about a world where prescription drug abuse is treated with -- prescription drugs. True, we see, in a jarringly somber moment, the toll drugs take on an ancillary character. But for Doug and Elizabeth, pill-popping has few consequences. For them it even seems to lead to...better living. Except I thought the title was supposed to be ironic.