There are two ways a film can swing when it sets out an incredibly modest set of parameters: It can either prove to be a bland and unambitious retread of the typical and the well-worn, or it can manage – through solid filmmaking and sheer force of will – to succeed within its limited boundaries. While it falls into the latter, Better Living Through Chemistry isn’t really its own movie, it’s more a lightweight mish-mash of American Beauty and Double Indemnity with a dash of Breaking Bad for good measure. It’s amiable, mostly forgettable, and it’s not going to change the world – but boy do I prefer it to alot of the dross out there.
What the film lacks in originality, it at least partially makes up for in quantity. First time writer/directors David Posamentier and Geoff Moore take the age-old tale of the slightly wussy small town guy trying to rejig his life, and hurl so much stuff at it that just enough sticks to make the ride enjoyable. There’s star power in Sam Rockwell – retreading very familiar territory as the schlubby but charming everyman – and Olivia Wilde’s pill-popping trophy wife. There’s also semi-resolved sub-plots about ninjas and marital issues, plus a streak of black comedy and even a cameo for Ray Liotta.
It all adds up to just enough. And Better Living Through Chemistry is indeed a film filled with just enoughs: There’s just enough laughs, just enough plot points, and just enough overall panache to pull off the final result. It’s lean and efficient movie making. In fact, if Roger Corman were asked to make a small-town black comedy, this is the film he would have made – give or take a couple of strip club scenes and an exploding helicopter.
The cast make a real go of it, but were always going to end up acting within themselves when faced with a script so evidently aware of its own limitations. This is a movie set in that slightly weird, white picket fenced world that’s just a couple of Xanaxes away from being real (just a shame American Beauty did that whole shtick 15 years ago), and there is the full range of semi-parodied small-town stereotypes to match – the incompetent cop, the domineering father in law and new-in-town millionaire are all present and correct. It’s energetic and lively, and we’ve seen it all before.
There’s really not much to say beyond that, as it’s frankly very difficult to judge a film like Better Living Through Chemistry on its own merits when so few of them are actually its own. It’s solid, light and enjoyable, and I have no doubt I’ll have forgotten near everything about it within a month. But that doesn’t mean it’s not pleasant viewing – I didn’t begrudge the film my time and the ramped up zaniness of the second act does end up becoming pretty infectious. Though it won’t stick with you for long after you see it, Better Living Through Chemistry is kind of smart, kind of funny, and I kind of enjoyed it.
Better Living Through Chemistry seems all too happy to paddle around in the shallow end and ape much more significant works, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy it.