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Better Living Through Chemistry

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Apr 15, 2014
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There are modern movies that acknowledge our misty-eyed nostalgia for the small-town America of the 1950s and smartly skewer it ("Pleasantville," "Days of Heaven")... and then there are movies that take a blind leap in the general direction of the (mostly imaginary) golden age America knew six decades ago, and end of skewering nothing but themselves. Such is the fate of Geoff Moore and David Posamentier’s "Better Living Through Chemistry."

Had the Coen Brothers used David Cronenberg’s teleporter machine from "The Fly" to travel in time a la "Back to the Future," and had their DNA mixed in with Alfred Hitchcock’s in the process, the result might have been something like this movie... a good version, that is. You can see the ghost of that other, more interesting movie bleeding around the edges of this misfire, starting with a title sequence in which the camera zeroes in on the details of a ’50s-style small town, complete with homeless people sleeping in the park and illicit goings-on (lovers slipping out of windows, that sort of thing).

The plot has the makings of either a zany Technicolor rom-com or, alternatively, a Hitchcockian thriller: Platinum blonde, married to a rich businessman, lures nebbishy pharmacist into her honey trap, and then into her coldly calculated design for murder and mayhem. It’s an old story: Kill the rich husband, frame or dump the clueless zero you got to do the dirty work, and skip town with the inherited millions.

The characters are all here, and they come with batteries included: Sam Rockwell plays the pharmacist, Doug Varney, whose life is a series of reminders of his own inadequacies. Wife Kara (Michelle Monaghan), a businesswoman and athletic dynamo, has already left him in the dust; son Ethan (Harrison Holzer) has hit puberty full-tilt, painting his bedroom windows black and smearing excrement on school lockers; father-in-law Walter (Ken Howard) won’t even let Doug re-name the pharmacy once Doug buys the place from him.

Meantime, the blonde bombshell -- her name is Elizabeth, and she’s played by the magnificent Olivia Wilde, who, like Rockwell, is fun to watch but essentially wasted in the role -- leads a lonesome life cooped up in her mansion with her pills and booze. It’s the pills that bring the two together. Waiting in the wings are Elizabeth’s husband, Jack (Ray Liotta), who isn’t even glimpsed until an hour into the film, but whose shadow lay heavy and dark over Elizabeth’s tales of torment, and "The Voice of Reason," played by Jane Fonda, whose main contribution (other than a cameo as herself) is a mysteriously omniscient and unnecessary voice-over that paints all the numbers for us, just in case the paper-thin plot is too complicated for our comprehension.

Lethally bored, blond women with rich husbands and striving boyfriends are the stuff of noir; the joke is that these people are so witless and incompetent that they can’t manage the inevitable crime -- a twist that should have made for a funny movie but which simply sags, leaving the film as lifeless and spent as Doug after one of his designer drug-fueled sex romps with Elizabeth. At least he’s having fun. (There’s a subplot about an FDA inspector looking over Doug’s cooked books, but that fizzles even more egregiously.) This title isn’t quite a direct-to-DVD release, but putting it out on home video barely a month after its theatrical release is more or less the same thing, and, well, there’s a reason for it.

The Blu-ray includes no special features, but the movie has a moral, of sorts: If you’re feeling dissatisfied, meek, and downtrodden, and you want to man up (one of the film’s recurring motifs is that women really just want a strong, virile man to take charge), get yourself a scrip for some good drugs, commit a few felonies, or at least acquire a set of ninja throwing stars and a fuck buddy. There might be some side effects, but so what?


"Better Living Through Chemistry"
Blu-ray
$22.98
www.universalstudiosentertainment.com/better-living-through-chemistry

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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