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Plastics, pesticides, preservatives, and prescriptions transformed American life.

Better Living through Chemistry

Written and Directed by Geoff Moore and David Posamentier

Opens at the Charles Theatre March 14

The pharmacist Douglas Varney

(Sam Rockwell) is as ill and unhappy as any of his customers in the film

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Better Living Through Chemistry

. Like a more anatomical Sherwood Anderson or Thornton Wilder, he knows who suffers what in his small town, and he knows how to make it better.

The phrase "better living through chemistry" is a shortened form of DuPont's slogan "Better Things for Better Living . . . Through Chemistry." First used in the 1930s, it was taken quite literally as plastics, pesticides, preservatives, and prescriptions transformed American life. In the 1960s, Timothy Leary and his cohorts were re-investing these words with a new romanticism: Drugs like LSD were the key to the good life, even if napalm was being used for mass killings in Vietnam.

Now we take as many drugs as ever, we just don't invest our dreams in them. Adderall aids our focus, Xanax soothes stress (until you start to worry you're becoming too dependent on it), and antidepressants are all but a rite of passage.

Thus, in Geoff Moore and David Posamentier's indie flick about a Podunk-town pharmacist who violates drug-dealer code and starts getting high on his own supply, we are to assume that the title is meant ironically as we watch his life melt away in some Morgan Spurlock-inspired jab at Big Pharma and all its little side effects. Or maybe it's meant to be a riff on the Gus Vant Sant classic

Drugstore Cowboy

.

Instead,

Better Living

comes closer to a classic midlife-crisis flick. Varney may know how to help his neighbors' hemorrhoids, but he doesn't know how to fix his own, oh-so frustrating life. His wife (played by

True Detective

's Michelle Monaghan) is an insufferable cyclomaniac obsessed with winning the Woodberry Cup-the town's annual bicycle race-and with humiliating her husband. And his pubescent son (Harrison Holzer) lands himself in trouble at school for smearing shit on things.

Like all heroes of the midlife crisis, Varney takes control of his fate when he begins an affair, in this case with a pill-fueled Elizabeth Roberts (Olivia Wilde), who encourages him to start dipping into the pharmacy's stash. In what follows, Varney simultaneously fucks his life up and takes it back. He runs around town jacked up like Hunter Thompson, banging Elizabeth every which way, while correcting various small slights and learning to stand up for himself.

Eventually, of course, his fantasy life unravels as he plots the murder of Elizabeth's husband (Ray Liotta) and winds up as the subject of a DEA investigation. The tension between the old, banal problems Varney used to face and the new, much more dramatic ones caused by the drug-pilfering drives the film's comedy. When a strung-out Varney is thrown on the floor by a cop in his son's class, we think he'll get comeuppance for his faith in pharmacology.

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In some way, though, the movie offers the very antiquated salve that drugs can help us, even if they only help us burn our lives down. One comes away from

Better Living

with the certainty that sometimes-especially if you're near 40-your life needs to be destroyed. But this feeling ultimately amounts to no more than a childish fantasy of a narcissistic man. And the lack of consequence or even drama makes the film feel like little more than the recurrent daydream of an unhappy drone.

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