In the realm of bad films, there are bad films, there are boring films (which is generally worse), and then there's the most frustrating kind of bad film: a good film which defeats itself. Better Living Through Chemistry is as perfect an example of one of those kinds of films I have seen in a while, a film which actually managed to build up my goodwill for it at the same time it was breaking it down. Right up until the film's credits finally rolled, Chemistry is choosing directions that are entertaining, interesting, or inspired, not to mention it's got a really fantastic cast, and yet, its problems can be boiled down to a single element -- and one which is so constant and ever-present during the movie that there was never any chance, almost from the moment the movie begins, that it could recover from its mistakes.
Sam Rockwell plays Doug Varney, new owner of Bishop's Pharmacy in the quaint little town of Woodbury. He's happy to take on new responsibility now that Walter Bishop (Ken Howard) -- Doug's father-in-law -- has turned over the shop, but remains mostly frustrated, because his brain-dead delivery boy Noah (Ben Schwartz) can't get his work done, and Walter reconsiders renaming the shop "Varney's" at the last minute, without Doug's permission. At home, Doug's wife Kara (Michelle Monaghan) remains more obsessed with winning cycling trophies than having any sort of intimacy with Doug, and Doug's teenage son Ethan (Harrison Holzer) gets in trouble at school for crimes involving his own poop. One night, finishing up Noah's deliveries, Doug pulls into the driveway of a new house, a palatial mansion estate, and the moment Elizabeth Roberts (Olivia Wilde) answers the door, Doug sees the life he wishes he had.
Anyone who knows anything about movies knows that Sam Rockwell is one of the most talented actors currently working, and at every turn, he elevates Chemistry to its highest comic potential. Doug quickly begins an affair with Elizabeth before diving into his store's stash to create new prescriptions for the two to enjoy. Key to Rockwell's success is co-writer / co-directors Geoff Moore and David Posamentier's decision not to downplay Doug's recklessness and selfishness. Most filmmakers would be afraid that a legitimate drug binge and affair would turn the audience against their protagonist, but then again, most films wouldn't have Rockwell's charm to fall back on, which is apparent even when he's sweating from head to toe, strung out on some pill he's just popped, and deeply concerned about the DEA agent (Norbert Leo Butz) who recently dropped by the pharmacy to make sure all the pill counts are on the up and up. Although there are ways in which Moore and Posamentier save Doug from consequences, they're mostly natural, and don't downplay his overall behavior. He's got excellent chemistry with Wilde (who, to her benefit, plays the character honestly and with real charm where many actors would've just made her a conniving opportunist), and scores many of the film's biggest laughs with a well-timed twitch or a certain line reading.
Unfortunately -- really unfortunately -- Moore and Posamentier, or perhaps meddling producers, don't have faith in their audience to get the joke, and so they proceed to destroy the film with voice-over narration. The voice-over explains who Doug and his family are, and what he feels about them. Sometimes the voice-over explains Doug is physically doing. At one point, the voice-over even invokes the title in a way that feels like explanation, which made a part of my soul die. It spoon-feeds the viewer every bit of information, every shred of comedy, and every smidgen of feeling, all while at least 90% of those things are obviously happening on screen without any help from the voice-over. The voice-over voice herself, Jane Fonda, is also part of one of the film's lamer and more bizarre jokes, almost as if the filmmakers were depending on Fonda to get financing for the film, and decided to basically write that explanation into the film. It's so pervasive it even destroys a moment when there isn't any voice-over narration: near the end, a character says everything by trailing off at the beginning of a sentence, which just feels like insult to injury after 75 minutes of yammering on.
There is a charming movie inside Better Living Through Chemistry, a semi-dark confection that's perfectly suited to Rockwell's type of casual cool, one with a nice edge and some pleasing restraint, which uses Ray Liotta well and has a really nifty opening credit sequence. It's such a shame that someone was afraid the viewer would miss it without giant neon signs pointing it out. It's a film that's supposed to be about pills, but most of the time it feels like you're watching the warning label.
Better Living Through Chemistry can't think of much to do but select a "comedic" font and then pop the faces of its cast inside chemical diagrams, which is really not much different than a grid of boxes, slanted or otherwise. It doesn't seem like it'd have been too hard to do something clever with a prescription bottle or a prescription strip, but I suppose creativity in cover art is truly an outdated notion. The single-disc release comes inside a standard Viva Elite Blu-Ray case with a matching glossy slipcover, and there is a sheet of paper inside the case with the UltraViolet digital copy code.
The Video and Audio
Universal's 2.39:1 1080p AVC transfer makes me wonder...are slightly overdone black levels the new banding? Maybe even an intentional "solution" to banding? Because this is the third disc in a row I've seen that featured a little crush (although at least one of those was probably to do with the source material). In the case of Better Living Through Chemistry, the slightly heavy shadow feels like a side effect of underwhelming color timing, as the natural lighting of environments feels more obvious than it usually does with non-amateur productions, although the actual transfer also looks a smidgen too dark as well. Other than that, the HD transfer is up to 2014 standards, with razor sharp levels of fine detail, vivid natural blues and greens in the film's picturesque little town, and no artifacting or banding that I can see.
Sound, as per the usual, is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, which is lively enough. This is a comedy mostly reliant on dialogue, and although the track does a nice job of capturing the nuances and inflections of Jane Fonda's voice, most of the "surround" is limited to familiar rock songs. A bike race provides some environmental effects that are quite nice, and there's at least a moment or two of drug-related trippiness. A+ technically, but run-of-the-mill otherwise. Also included are (deep breath) French, Italian, German, Portuguese, French, Spanish, Polish, and Thai DTS 5.1 tracks, English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and French European, French Canadian, Italian, German, Latin Spanish, Korean, Swedish, Danish, Finnish, Dutch, Norwegian, Portuguese, Cantonese, Hindi, Polish Thai, and traditional Mandarin subtitles.
Sam Rockwell fans may still get some enjoyment out of the movie, because the film lives and dies on his more-than-capable shoulders. Even for them, however, it's a rental at best. One almost wonders if the lack of any promotional extras on the disc is a sign that the filmmakers felt the same way about Fonda's intrusive chatter.
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