Better Living Through Chemistry promises a hybrid movie that acknowledges the often unspoken link between the traditional film noir and the romantic comedy that traffics in the fantasy of what critic Nathan Rabin termed the “manic pixie dream girl.” Both sorts of films see women as an “other,” rather than as members of the human race, and offer a paranoid misogynist vision in which women solely control a man’s potential to realize his ambitions. In the noir, the man is usually eaten alive by a woman who stirs his basest instincts and desires, while in the rom-com the woman does the same thing to a generally socially positive effect. The commonality, of course, is that men are let off the hook for any responsibility they may have in their own affairs, as they’re schnooks waiting for a woman to save or ruin them. The male protagonist’s passivity is rewarded, or at least actively responded to, because we all know that the two things people have historically prized sexually are passivity and self-pity.
Better Living Through Chemistry has the doomsday plot of a noir and the wish-fulfilling tone of a romantic comedy, but writer-directors Geoff Moore and David Posamentier initially display a pivotal awareness of the irony of a white privileged hero who feels utterly powerless to people who’ve historically been at the mercy of white-male exploitation. Small-town pharmacist Douglas Varney (Sam Rockwell) is a typical noir or rom-com hero in that he’s got his head lodged firmly in his posterior. Douglas is so cowed over by his wife, Kara (Michelle Monaghan), and her intimidatingly influential father, Walter (Ken Howard), that he doesn’t see that he’s the only person to blame for his white-collar entrapment. Our manic pixie femme fatale is Elizabeth (Olivia Wilde), a trophy wife who’s bored and drunk enough to see a fixer-upper opportunity in Douglas.
The film initially pivots on a joke that’s familiar to movies such as Bad Santa and Role Models: that the hero inadvertently commits moral acts while at the mercy of deeply immoral impulses. Better Living Through Chemistry takes a while to find its footing, but it briefly comes alive when Douglas begins to get high on his own products, subsequently shedding his dorky outer layers and thereby affording Rockwell the opportunity to execute a series of characteristically sharp riffs on smart-aleck contemptuousness. Unfortunately, Moore and Posamentier infuriatingly fall back on the same home-is-where-the-heart-is homilies that cripple the last third of seemingly every mainstream American comedy, and just as they begin to realize the potential of Rockwell and Wilde’s complementing energies. A sexily chaotic parody of entitlement becomes just another tale of a white dude learning that there are worse things in life than essentially having no problems. No shit.