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February 28, 2017

Better Living Through Chemistry

by Franz Patrick


Better Living Through Chemistry (2014)
★ / ★★★★

Doug (Sam Rockwell) is the only pharmacist in town so one would think that he gets the respect he deserves. His customers see him only as the man behind the counter; his employees do not even bother to hide the fact that they do not like their job very much; his father-in-law gets to keep his last name displayed on the roof despite having sold the pharmacy to Doug; and his wife (Michelle Monaghan) always gets the final word. But when Doug meets the beautiful Elizabeth (Olivia Wilde), he is very drawn to her—even though it is clear that she has a drug problem.

Written and directed by Geoff Moore and David Posamentier, “Better Living Through Chemistry” is a limp comedy despite the talent on screen. This is because the writers fail to construct a well-defined story arc that is designed to convince us that Doug is living a life of quiet desperation. Yes, we are allowed to see how much of a pushover he is. But do not be fooled by these images. Almost all of them are sitcom-like and uninspired.

Not for one second do we believe that Doug’s transformation from a mousy pharmacist to a drug addict is genuine. The biggest miscalculation is that the protagonist is never put into any real danger, just possible threats that back away during the last second. The trick gets really old especially during the second half. The screenplay offers no surprises, just a series of scenes with the same punchline. There is no reason to keep watching.

The most interesting relationship is not Doug’s extramarital affair with the equally unhappy Elizabeth—although it might come close if it had been written more sharply and actually had something significant to say about human connection—but that of Doug and his twelve-year-old son, Ethan (Harrison Holzer). The boy exhibits classic signs of a young person who lacks guidance, an older figure who sees him nonetheless despite his behavior, and someone who he can genuinely look up to.

The best scene involves a talk between the father and his son. The school recommends that Ethan should be on medication since his behavior appears out of control. Doug has a better idea: To spend time with his son and really talk to one another about the issue, or issues, behind the troubles at school. This sensitive moment doesn’t last, however, because the filmmakers would rather show a scene—again, sitcom-like—of the two bonding over committing an act of vandalism.

Moore and Pasamentier should be ashamed for spitting at what should be the heart of the picture: How an unhappy husband, through an extramarital affair, learns to recognize how good of a person he is and how much he can offer, thereby helping his son to get out of a destructive cycle. I loved the shots of how Ethan comes to admire his father later on in the picture. But it is most unfortunate and frustrating that none of it is earned.

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