Just Say No, by Craig Schroeder
Better Living Through Chemistry has a fantastic opening credit sequence. If one were to rank opening credit sequences in the last decade, it would fall somewhere between 2005’s Lord of War and 2010’s Super. The sequence floats in and out of a diorama-style model of a quaint and charming town; the names of the cast and crew replacing the names of the local ice cream parlor or surnames on a mailbox. It really is a delightful sequence. I bring up the opening title sequence, because every other part of Geoff Moore and David Posamentier’s Better Living Through Chemistry is a horrendous, cynical slog of a film and an attempt at satire that completely misses its mark.
Better Living Through Chemistry, a spiritual successor to last year’s Side Effects—Steven Soderbergh’s misinformed and ludicrous thriller, aimed at the pharmaceutical industry—begins with condescension and never relents. Doug Varney (Sam Rockwell) is a put-upon husband and heir to his father-in-law’s small-town pharmacy. When Doug goes on a house call to deliver medicines to a beautiful trophy wife (Olivia Wilde), the two strike up a relationship and begin tearing up the town–as well as Doug’s pharmaceutical supply. Oh, and Jane Fonda is the film’s omnipotent narrator and, in the final thirty seconds, makes an appearance as herself(normally I’d consider including this revelation a spoiler, but she gets a featured credit at the beginning of the film and her face is on the poster!).
Doug’s character is one we’ve seen before. His journey is not dissimilar to Lester Burnham from American Beauty or The Narrator in Fight Club; he’s a man living an unfulfilled life who needs an outside force to awaken him to his life’s purpose, and by proxy, awaken us to ours. The film is here to teach and we just need to open ourselves up to what it has to say. And what it has to say is that the pharmaceutical industry is bad, or something. I really don’t know who the film is attempting to skewer and I’m not sure Moore and Posamentier do either. Doug is treated as a hero and his journey is meant to be a rebellion against evil pharmaceutical companies. But Doug is clearly the worst behaved, plotting murder and mixing narcotics for personal consumption. Furthermore, the film seems all too eager to demonize prescription drug users, but the only ones abusing them are Doug and his patient-cum-lover, whom we’re ultimately meant to root for.
The condescension could easily be forgiven if Better Living Through Chemistry was funny. But it’s not. I laughed twice (both courtesy of Ben Schwartz, who plays one of Doug’s slacker employees). The film relies on a revolting joke-cocktail: three parts scatological humor (Doug’s teenage son smears his shit on the lockers of school bullies because, apparently, that’s what ninjas do), one part making fun of fat-people with genital and/or anal disorders (a chubby postman is sent-up multiple times for having to treat his herpes), a twist of know-it-all condescension (it’s assumed anyone using psychotropic drugs is either crazy or abusing them) and a garnish of oddly placed misogyny (including a scene where Varney is having sex with his wife and says something to the effect of shut up and take it).
What’s worse is that Better Living Through Chemistry is wasting a whole cast of talented actors. Olivia Wilde, who has proven to be capable and charming in 2013’s Drinking Buddies and Her, is just treading water, given nothing to do in a role where she’s reduced to gender stereotypes and furtive, sultry glances. Conversely, Michelle Monaghan plays Doug’s spouse, a fitness maniac and head of their household. Her crime is being stronger than Doug and her story arc eventually ends in her being “put into her place” via physical and sexual dominance.
Better Living Through Chemistry furthers the shameful stigma associated with those who rely on psychotropic medication, or in this case, simple antibiotics. And it doesn’t even do that well, often celebrating its hero for doing the same things its premise seems to detest. But Better Living Through Chemistry had an easy out, not afforded to more self-serious films like 2013’s Side Effects: just be funny. But it’s not funny. So what we’re left with is the cinematic equivalent of a teenage boy, nothing but misdirected anger and poop jokes. And one stellar opening credit sequence.