Jane Fonda? Say what?
Yup. Jane Fonda. You don’t see her in “Better Living Through Chemistry,” but you hear her unmistakable voice throughout narrating the tale.
It’s a middle-aged crazy movie. There were a lot of them in the ’70s – one a month, at least, it seemed back then at your local multiplex. It might have starred Elliott Gould, at the time, as the henpecked, unhappily married pharmacist; Brenda Vaccaro as his stone-crushing wife; and Angel Tompkins (a Johnny Carson consort, we now know) as the gorgeous instrument of his sexual and pharmaceutical liberation.
Anyone can point out in the 21st century that, in 1970, men weren’t the gender in need of liberation. But let’s be charitable with this anachronistic movie and point out that a settled, middle-class adulthood often brings out an illicit desire for all possible genders.
If you really want to be blunt here, gorgeous, young, bronze goddesses have been the preferred Hollywood liberation for successful middle-aged men since the ’20s. But that would be disrespectful to this vaguely novel pharmaceutical twist to the old, old story.
So what we’ve got here is Sam Rockwell, well-cast as the small-town pharmacist who is living a joyless and thoroughly ineffectual life. He bought his father-in-law’s drugstore, but he’s so insecure he accedes to the insufferable old prig’s (Ken Howard) insistence that he keep the family name above the door.
The pharmacist’s wife (Michelle Monaghan) is a grade-A condescending stone-crusher who has ground all residue of masculine pride in her druggist husband into a fine powder. She’s a champion cyclist, in tip-top physical condition. She wins all the local bicycle races with her thighs of steel and spends her days teaching others how to do likewise, i.e. yelling angrily at well-off suburbanites in lesser shape that they should be pedaling their stationary bikes harder and faster.
Her rule with her out-of-shape husband is no sex during the week. (Ancient but truly great Rodney Dangerfield joke. “My wife’s got me down to once a week. You think that’s bad, two guys I know she cut out completely.”) In all discussions of the family pharmacy, she’s on Daddy’s side against her husband.
Their son is an unhappy Goth pubescent who has taken to leaving the byproducts of his alimentation with schoolmates he doesn’t like.
They’re a “comfortable” family defined economically but not exactly happy, you know?
And then, one day, the pharmacist is forced to make his own deliveries by a wildly unreliable delivery boy and encounters a huge, rambling manse outside of town. The mistress of the place is a lynx-eyed sex goddess (the perfectly named Olivia Wilde) whose husband (Ray Liotta) is never home.
In other words, the movie is an ancient dirty joke set-up.
Which the movie sort of is, with the relatively new “middle aged crazy” wrinkle of the pharmacist’s thorough investigation of the life-enhancing proclivities of his own products to keep up with the tigress/goddess who is teaching him all sorts of hitherto untried things about sex and craziness.
Consider it, then, a much-lesser extramarital relative of “The Wolf of Wall Street’s” adult version of “Animal House.”
It’s the newest film at the North Park Theatre which seems, among other things, to have started going after what was once a solid art house film audience “demographic” – couples, middle-aged and older, looking for mildly risque light entertainment.
There’s very little substance to “Better Living Through Chemistry,” but because the liberated pharmacist is played by Rockwell – a very clever actor indeed – and his unhappily married goddess and liberator is played by the drop-dead gorgeous and quite talented Wilde, it’s certainly pleasant enough.
Everything that is offered as a temporary “solution” to this unhappy family’s middle-class miseries – including a very brief father/son misdemeanor crime spree – is, of course, conclusive proof of the stubborn persistence of infantilism in midlife male fantasies.
But as an anachronistic daydream still alive and kicking – with a pharmaceutical tinge – in the 21st century, it’s not completely without entertainment either.
Better Living Through Chemistry
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jane Fonda, Michelle Monaghan, Ray Liotta.
Directors: Geoff Moore and David Posmantier
Running time: 91 minutes
Rating: No rating but R equivalent for sex, language and much drug consumption.
The Lowdown: An unhappily married pharmacist is introduced to his own product by a small-town sex goddess.