Misdiagnosed Dark Comedy Triggers Gag Reflex


For such an obviously small and grass-rootsy kinda dark comedy, Better Living Through Chemistry has a surprising lot going for it. Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Michelle Monaghan. That’s a lot of solid talent rounding out the three leading parts, all of whom have turned heads recently with other work. Unfortunately, when pitted together in this film, chemistry is exactly what they lack. (That may be the obvious line, but there, I said it. And, it’s no less obvious that much of this movie.)

First time writing/directing team Geoff Moore and David Posamentier, working with a glaringly apparent low budget, somehow netted this eye-opening cast – an accomplishment which is nothing to sneeze at. They even managed to get Ray Liotta and Jane Fonda to turn up – although having seen the film, I’m still not sure why. A current check of the film’s IMDb page reveals that these character’s actually lack names… not surprising. In an entirely slight film notable only for A.) its cast, and B.) the misuse of them amid painfully glaring tonal shifts (from underdog comedy to romantic comedy to arbitrary comedy and even absurdity), Fonda seems to be playing herself, although she also narrates. Weird. Anyway, Liotta, in his two scenes, seems genuinely thrilled to be sporting a new “Madmen” style haircut, and to not be playing a corrupt nut-job for a change. It’s like, “Look Ma, no gun!!”

Better Living Through Chemistry wants to make us laugh at that dark if predictable downward spiral of its milquetoast main character, familiarly played by Rockwell. He’s a small town pharmacist who gets into trouble when he chooses, at long last, to defy his oppressive wife (Monaghan, overplaying it), and have an affair with a lonely trophy wife/junkie (Wilde). Instantly, his eyes are opened up to the wonders of doing drugs, cheating on his marriage, and all sorts of random shenanigans and vandalism that is intended as comedy. He’s got a troubled adolescent son whom he initially fears, then learns to bond with through a little good old fashioned father/son covert property damage outing.

Filmmakers Moore and Posamentier seem to relate to Rockwell’s stooge of a character in that they too cannot resist giving in to every pleasurable indulgence. It’s as through they were having so much making this film that they deemed all the inside jokes and on-set wackiness worthy of actually being included in the movie. But “if it’s funny on the shoot day, it’ll be funny in the movie” is not a truism. For example, Rockwell strutting around publicly with a dangling cig in shades, a bike helmet, and a spandex number worthy of only Freddie Mercury or Borat may’ve been a hoot on the shoot day, but it makes zero sense for his timid character.

Likewise, the novelty pornographic porcelain mice on the shelves of his quaint pharmacy store might’ve been a hilarious find by the film’s Set Decoration department, but when the filmmakers cut away to these heretofore unseen items during an impromptu sex visit by Wilde, there’s only confusion about whether these things are actually supposed to be for sale in that store, or if it’s purely just the filmmakers just having more unthought-through fun? If it is just “fun”, they really ought to have included more of those type of gags, and sooner.

Comedy, not the impressive casting, is the key component of Better Living Through Chemistry. And the comedy is simply all over the place, resulting in a quickly dissolving bitter pill of a film. This trained professional’s advice is to seek better living elsewhere, and I wish Moore and Posamentier better chemistry next time.


This review originally appeared at Twitchfilm.com.