'Better Living' needs better writing

Posted: March 14, 2014

"BETTER Living Through Chemistry" stars Sam Rockwell as a small-town pharmacist whose suffocating life leads him to violate Tony Montana's prime directive.

To wit: Never get high on your own supply.

Doug (Rockwell) is a square, suburban guy with a distracted wife (Michelle Monaghan), creepy son and busybody father-in-law (Ken Howard).

Into his dead-end life walks drop-dead gorgeous Elizabeth (Olivia Wilde), a pill-popping party girl and trophy wife to an absentee husband. She loosens Doug's tie, then his morals, and soon has him convinced that the answers to all his problems (libido, energy, confidence) are in the bottles that line his shelves.

Pharmacist, prescribe thyself.

It's a too sharply drawn setup, needlessly reinforced by narration (the voice of Jane Fonda), but Rockwell is such a reliably amusing, nimble actor that he makes the most of it. Good also is Wilde - relaxed, sexy and funny in the role of the worldly woman trying to find something to do in a small town.

Their relationship deepens, the plot morphs into a sort of screwball take on film noir - The Postman Always Needs Ointment (Doug, as town pharmacist, knows a little too much about everybody's medical history).

The drugs help his resolve, but Doug's binge takes its toll on his health, and, perhaps, his business - a DEA bureaucrat (Norbert Leo Butz, funny in the role) arrives for an audit.

"Better Living" never seems to know how seriously to take Doug's downward spiral - we get mixed signals on its commitment to its black-comedy potential. And the resolution feels wishy-washy.

The movie is best enjoyed for the contributions of its impressive cast - there's a bit for Ray Liotta, who perhaps saw in the story faint echoes of "Something Wild." Fonda also materializes in the finale, and finds that off-camera was a more dignified place to be.

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