Movie Review: “Better Living Through Chemistry” Shines With Its All-Star Cast


Review by James McDonald

A straight-laced pharmacist’s uneventful life spirals out of control when he starts an affair with a trophy wife customer who takes him on a joyride involving sex, drugs and possibly murder.

Sam Rockwell is that rare perfect actor. He is good, no matter how bad the film he’s in might be (cough cough “Charlie’s Angels”). He can play the good guy or the bad guy just as effectively. In “Better Living Through Chemistry”, he plays neither, here he plays a regular guy, Douglas Varney, who runs a pharmacy that’s owned by his wife’s father. His wife Kara (Michelle Monaghan), is all about staying in shape and going to extremes to stay that way and excludes Doug and their son Ethan (Harrison Holzer) from her life. They are more of an annoyance than a family.

One day, Doug ends up having to deliver a prescription to a customer as his regular driver is not available and when he arrives at the location, he is immediately smitten with Elizabeth Roberts (Olivia Wilde), a rich, beautiful and sexy trophy wife who seems bored with her luxurious lifestyle. They begin a torrid love affair and she introduces him to some of his own drugs, something he’s never taken in all his years as a pharmacist and he takes an unexpected liking to them.

He begins concocting various drugs together which makes their sexual escapades even more exciting and during one encounter, he jokingly states that they should kill her husband and both retire into the sunset with all of his money. Elizabeth quickly sobers up and of course he tells her that he was joking but we can tell that the seed has been sown. Or was it already planted the moment he first laid eyes on her? The story incorporates drama and comedy and walks a fine line between the two. Near the end of the movie though, after Doug and Elizabeth have planned the perfect murder, the story begins to incorporate a very dark tone that for me, just didn’t sit right.


After all, this isn’t “Mortal Thoughts” or “Suspicion”, at least it didn’t start out that way and I suddenly had visions of Doug and Elizabeth encompassing Bonnie & Clyde with a bloody shoot-out that would end up with both of them dead. Dramedy is not an easy genre to embody but thankfully, directors Geoff Moore and David Posamentier are confident with their story and have even more confidence in their all-star cast. They throw the occasional red herring in there, like Ray Liotta who plays Elizabeth’s rich husband who initially seems like a sketchy mobster or a DEA agent who appears out of nowhere to check on Doug’s pharmaceutical narcotics supply but admiringly, they’re in the movie just to remind us that it can go either way in a heartbeat.

In the beginning, when we’re first introduced to Doug, he is a nice guy who gets pushed around all the time by those around him, including his wife, his son, his step-father and some of his co-workers but over the course of the movie, he begins to regain his self-respect by standing up to them and in one of the film’s best scenes, he beats his wife at her own game, literally. When his son’s school calls for a parent-teacher meeting and tells Doug and Kara that he has been vandalizing the facility as a sign of defiance, Kara won’t hear of it and storms out, refusing to believe that, in her eyes, her son is in any trouble whatsoever. She is more interested in her fitness class and her friends where apparently, no drama exists.

Nonetheless, Doug steps up to the plate and talks to Ethan and the two begin to bond again. All he needed was for someone to pay attention to him, instead of playing Guitar Hero in his bedroom all by himself. All of this transpires because of his affair with Elizabeth, who constantly reminds him that he is a good man who has a lot to offer the world and using that reassurance, he begins to build his inner strength up again. I liked this movie a lot but found that it was pretty much perched on the fence, undecided as to whether it wanted to be a comedy or a drama. Mixing them together is easy but it would have gotten higher marks from me if it had chosen to be one or the other.

In select theaters now


James McDonald
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