RATING |

Sam Rockwell's easygoing appeal - at his best he has Steve Martin's disarming charm, Bill Murray's Caddyshack lunacy, and just a touch of Kermit the Frog - has served him equally well in the sci-fi thriller Moon and the teen romance The Way, Way Back.

His charm fails him in his latest outing, Better Living Through Chemistry, an ill-conceived if mildly amusing comedy about middle-class ennui, sexual frustration, and drug abuse. Costarring Olivia Wilde, Michelle Monaghan, and Jane Fonda, Chemistry takes a stab at delivering urbane, witty social satire about the unbearable happiness of being suburban. It doesn't exactly hit the mark.

A slightly vulgar comedy of manners, writer-director duo David Posamentier and Geoff Moore's debut feature stars Rockwell as Doug Varney, a mild-mannered pharmacist in the quaint fictional suburban town of Woodbury who is so thoroughly emasculated by his wife, competitive cyclist Kara (Michelle Monaghan) and her dad Walter (Ken Howard), that he fears he isn't manly enough to be a good role model for his 12-year-old son Ethan (Harrison Holzer).

Kara is an alpha male fraternity jock trapped in a woman's body. She takes pleasure in mocking Doug in public and crushing him in bike races. Ethan, for his part, is a mini-me Goth who expresses his Germanic angst by smearing his feces all over school.

In an utterly bewildering move, the filmmakers created a part for Fonda as an unseen narrator who spoon-feeds us the action in intrusive, epithet-laced voice-overs. Fonda just doesn't fit. She has no real connection to the characters and her glib asides alienate the viewer. (She does have one wicked line during her sole on-screen appearance.)

Doug's misery is lifted when he meets the equally lonely, bored Elizabeth (Wilde), a rich hausfrau who spends her days getting sloshed on whiskey, vodka, wine, and pills. Pills red, blue, orange, fuchsia, she takes 'em. Pills round, oblong, diamond-shaped. She pops pills with such proficiency, you'd think it was an Olympic sport.

Rockwell and Wilde give off a strange, funny, and almost perverse chemistry as the lovers, playing off each other with real verve.

The couple undergo a groovy journey of self-discovery as they indulge in lots of sex and drugs. Such wisdom awaits them on the other side. And so many moral lessons for us.

Better Living Through Chemistry ** (out of four stars)

Directed by David Posamentier and Geoff Moore. With Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Michelle Monaghan, Ken Howard, Jane Fonda. Distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Running time: 1 hour, 31 mins.

Parent's guide: not rated (profanity, drugs, nudity, sexual situations, adult themes, ennui)

Playing at: The PFS Theater at the Roxy

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