Movie review: “Better Living Through Chemistry” misfires with dark rom-com formula

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From the March 13, 2014 edition

The comedy-drama “Better Living Through Chemistry” spends a lot of time tinkering with formula, mixing from different genres in search of the right balance.

Unfortunately, it never quite gets the molecules to combine. Some promising if not terribly original ideas don’t do justice to a solid cast.

Small-town pharmacist Douglas Varney (Sam Rockwell) is a nice guy who seems to take his small-town pharmacist role seriously. He lives life as though he’s posing for a Norman Rockwell painting.

But with an acidic spouse (Michelle Monaghan) at home, Douglas finds himself allured with a pill-popping trophy wife (Olivia Wilde) he meets during a delivery. The two begin an affair that turns Douglas’ life into a whirlwind of sex, recreational pharmaceutical use and potentially murder.

“Better Living” shares common themes with better dark comedies and dramas that only highlight its shortcomings.

It’s got some of the comic-noir-y small town murder plot of “To Die For” without the payoff. It’s got some of the male midlife crisis of “American Beauty” without the nuance. Male fantasy alert: The schlubby small town pharmacist is married to Michelle Monaghan and having an affair with Olivia Wilde? (Also, between this and “True Detective,” why are Monaghan’s fictional spouses so unfaithful? Dudes!)

The cast is winning even if the material is not. Rockwell is a perfect fit for the weary guy gone “Breaking Bad” Lite. Wilde — who’s finally getting roles worthy of her ability — has fun with a character that goes against her general likability (think Jennifer Lawrence in “American Hustle”).

First time writer-director duo Geoff Moore and David Posamentier try to combine too many elements from their influences — and employ an unnecessary third-person narrator — but they only manage to tip the good-bad balance above the halfway mark.

Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films