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Review: Sam Rockwell elevates new comedy ‘Better Living Through Chemistry’

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Better Living Through Chemistry has the simplistic feel of a TV sitcom, right down to the cutesy opening credits, brief guest stars, and small town setting populated with an array of colorful characters.

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The always delightful Sam Rockwell stars as Douglas Varney, who, as a straight-laced pharmacist, knows a little bit about a lot of people in his small town. He enjoys his job and likes helping people with their problems. By offering sage advice and dosing out little pills, he knows he plays a crucial role in making people happy and healthy.

But as often is the case, Doug himself is not happy. Always passive and more accommodating to others, Doug is henpecked by his wife (Michelle Monaghan), disregarded by his father-in-law (30 Rock’s Ken Howard), and ignored by his son. He needs a change, something to liven up his mood and life. Could the answers he is looking for be found in the little orange plastic bottles he doles out every day to others?

Normally, Doug would never give a second thought to these notions, but after he meets a rich, dissatisfied, and heavily medicated trophy wife (Olivia Wilde), his thinking begins to change. They quickly form a “kindred spirits” friendship based on loneliness and depression, and almost as quickly, it evolves into a more carnal one too. She opens his eyes to many things, not the least of which, self-medication and the pleasures of high-grade pharmaceuticals.

With this, everything is fantastic for Doug . . . for a while. He gains confidence and purpose, reconnects with his son, but then, almost as quickly, his world comes crashing down around him. Over-medication, a half-formed murder plot, and a deceptively bumbling DEA agent converge on him like a straightjacket as he begins to lose control.

Better Living Through Chemistry starts off a bit slow. The movie lives and dies by Sam Rockwell – which is good thing because Rockwell is always brings a ton of energy and charm to any role (Better Living… is no exception). In the beginning - the film feels every bit as sluggish and uninspired as his character. But after about 40 minutes - just as the drugs begin to kick in, so does Rockwell, and he takes over, carrying the film on his back the rest of the way. In a hilarious little detail, the more and more his life spirals out of control the wilder and more unkempt Rockwell’s hair gets, until the end, where it looks like he stuck a fork in an electric socket.

The film reflects its lead character's changes as well. It too builds confidence as the pace and editing pick up right alongside Rockwell. It builds to a crescendo – including an entertaining montage set to Donavon’s “Season of the Witch” – before crashing back down as if coming off a high.

As for the rest of the cast, they just kind of do their normal thing. Michelle Monaghan is not given much to do besides being a relentless bitch. Olivia Wilde has a few amusing moments as a drunk and/or high lush. Ben Schwartz, who plays a idiot pharmacy employee, and Norbert Leo Butz, the DEA agent, are entertaining in all-too-brief roles. While big names like Ray Liotta and Jane Fonda pop up for what basically amount to glorified cameos (Liotta is in two brief scenes, while Fonda narrates and makes an appearance late for two quick jokes – one about feminine hygiene products and another about Chlamydia).

As previously mentioned, Better Living Through Chemistry is a fairly simple, but fun movie (thanks mostly to Rockwell). The film only half-heartedly tries to be a darker comedy than it really is. Perhaps if the filmmakers (first-time writer/directors Geoff Moore and David Posamentier) really committed to the black comedy that the story wants and deserves to be, it would be funnier and certainly more challenging. In the end, it just far too often takes the easy way out. Though underneath the comedy, the film does have a solid message about happiness and society’s reliance on medicine to create false-bliss (and the sometimes unnecessary rush to over-prescribe children too).

* * * ½ out of 5 stars

Better Living Through Chemistry opens Friday, March 14 at Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center playing nightly at 9:30 p.m.

So come out to the Zeitgeist and take advantage of this unique film-going experience and all the Zeitgeist Arts Center has to offer. And by doing so, help support one the premier alternative arts center in the South. You can visit the Zeitgeist Multi-disciplinary Arts Center’s website here.

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