Sam Rockwell plays Douglas Varney, a sad-sack small town pharmacist whose life has become an unending series of compromises, in the darkly satiric new comedy “Better Living Through Chemistry.” He’s married to an emasculating, competitive workout fanatic, played by Michelle Monaghan (her stereotypically ball-busting character is typical of the film’s rather unpleasant air of misogyny), with a preteen son who’s indifferent to his presence at best and outright hostile at worst. The one highlight in his life is his job, but even that has its difficulties: he’s finally inherited his father-in-law’s pharmacy business, but the old man refuses to stop meddling.
Things change dramatically when he meets and immediately strikes a steamy affair with a bored trophy wife, portrayed by an incredibly game Olivia Wilde. The would-be femme fatale convinces him that he’s a fool for not taking advantage of his position by getting high on his own supply, and the couple’s psychotropic recreation gives Doug the confidence he’s been lacking. Oh, did I mention the film is inexplicably narrated by Jane Fonda, playing some version of herself, for no particular reason?
Sam Rockwell is typically great, though the one adjective I’d never use to describe the effortlessly charismatic actor is “milquetoast,” and his pre-affair performance as Doug is never entirely convincing. Olivia Wilde is an actress who’s spent far too long playing dull, “stand around and look pretty” roles, but recent work in Joe Swanberg’s “Drinking Buddies” and Spike Jonze’s “Her” have shown that at least a few directors have caught on to the hugely likeable personality behind the looks, and writer-directors Geoff Moore and David Posamentier utilize her effectively here. Disappointingly, their film spends its time attempting to shock a reaction out of its audience before finally revealing itself to be more of a placebo; there’s no substance beneath the posturing, and it all ends up feeling far too safe. However, the sequence of father-son bonding through vandalization, set to a cover of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” is a relative comedic high point.