Saturday, March 29, 2014

Movie Reviews: Better Living Through Chemistry, Homefront

Better Living Through Chemistry
directed by Geoff Moore and David Posamentier
Why are there so many movies about a nebbish who is getting pushed around by life, meets a woman who is a little kooky and slowly transforms himself with the woman's enthusiastic help into a more aggressive, confident, sexually alluring and downright dominant man? Are there movies when it is the woman who makes the transformation? I'm sure there must be although off the top of my head I can think of only one recent such film, The English Teacher, at this time. Anyway this is an old story and one that is done just well enough to make this movie worth a look see. Ultimately the movie wasn't quite daring enough. It got just close enough to the ledge to tease you that it was something truly out there but went for a more or less conventional ending. So this was an okay movie but probably not something that is a 100% must see film. It was enjoyable and occasionally laugh out loud funny but not something that you haven't seen before. As with a lot of stories like this the question is not so much is the story new and exciting but rather is the story well directed, produced and acted. Did you find the characters believable and/or sympathetic. I think the answer in the case would be mostly yes. Of course if you aren't old enough to have had a few regrets, have wondered if your life is offtrack or to have occasionally had the strange feeling that on life's expressway you missed your exit about 20 miles back and are now lost and low on gas, some of this movie's humor might appear a bit forced. YMMV.

This is a directorial debut. Douglas Varney (Sam Rockwell-who is perfect for this role) is a pharmacist who is on the verge of taking over the family business. Unfortunately it's not strictly speaking his family's business. No you see Doug married into this business. His bossy domineering father-in-law Walter Bishop (Ken Howard) is finally retiring as the owner and operator of the town's pharmacy. Walter has transferred the ownership of the pharmacy to Doug. However, Walter being the man he is, simply can't imagine that Doug really knows what he's doing. So Walter remains full of unwanted advice and irritating actions, like ensuring that the store's sign still reads "Bishop's" instead of "Varney's".

Well the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Walter is a hard driving man who doesn't really respect Doug. Similarly Walter's daughter and Doug's wife, Kara (Michelle Monaghan), is a bossy, unpleasant and highly competitive woman who puts little stock into what Doug wants. Although usually Doug tries to go along with what Kara wants in order to keep the marriage peace, the truth is that Kara finds herself unable to respect a man who takes all his cues from her. She constantly is irritated with Doug, often for no reason, and tells him "... it's called being a man! You might like it." Her disdain is symbolized and magnified by the fact that she is very athletic and usually wins the local cycle race while the hapless Doug almost always finishes last. When their son shows signs of juvenile delinquency and psychological disturbance, Kara shoots down suggestions from school officials and her husband. She instead urges Doug to step aside and let Walter spend more time with the boy as "obviously" Walter is more manly. Ouch. Kara strictly regulates the intimacy. It's quite rare and must be scheduled in accordance with her needs, not Doug's. Even at work, Doug gets little deference or recognition as his employees ignore his requests, openly disrespect him, come in late and leave early.
This all starts to change, when Doug, because of a lazy employee, finds himself doing the low level grunt work of delivering prescriptions to people at their homes. One of the last deliveries he makes is to an attractive rich bored borderline alcoholic trophy wife named Elizabeth Roberts (Olivia Wilde). Doug is intrigued with her and strangely enough the reverse is also true. Although Elizabeth doesn't have the money for the co-pays, Doug, as pharmacy owner, waives the fees. They soon find themselves talking to each other on a regular basis. Just as many men and women in those situations do, they eventually realize that rather than complaining about their spouses they could get busy putting smiles on each other's faces. And they do so. Repeatedly. Enthusiastically. In various places and positions. After one of these sessions, having just experienced la petite morte, Doug starts to complain about how much his life stinks and that the only happiness he finds is the brief time he spends with Elizabeth. She remarks that having all that chemistry knowledge and complete access to almost every drug imaginable must make his days full of temptation. Ding! Ding!! Ding!!! Doug starts to make up drug cocktails, at first just for use during his fun times with Elizabeth, but later on for his everyday work.

The drug use leads to personality changes, including a humorous "who's the man, now??" showdown with his wife and a sweet attempt to bond with his son. It also leads to murder plans and increasingly frequent visits from a seemingly incompetent DEA agent Andrew Carp (Norbert Butz), who is required to check inventory and prescription records because of the ownership transfer. It's an open question as to whether Doug's new found assertiveness is a result of his drug use and dalliances or if the drugs and adultery really revealed who he was all along. This was a black comedy I guess but it's not a particularly dark one. Ray Liotta stars as Mr. Roberts and turns in a short performance that is 100% the opposite of what you'd normally expect from Liotta. Something I did find amusing was the fact that the local pharmacist knows a LOT that is private and/or embarrassing about many people in the local population. Similar to the voiceover and red lines in The English Teacher, this is mostly played for laughs. Jane Fonda provides narration and an ending cameo.

directed by Gary Fleder
I like Jason Staham's work but as I've mentioned before he probably could stand to find some different scripts. But then again if you're well paid doing the same thing over and over again do you really care? I mean if you're a multimillionaire and provide well for yourself and your loved ones would you really lay awake at night worrying whether your artistic talent was truly being stretched? Well maybe you would. The Janitor recently wrote a post about moving outside of his comfort zone. Certainly some people enjoy doing that. But there are other people who do just fine staying in their lane and reaping the rewards thereof. Maybe that is what Statham is doing.

I can't blame anyone for doing that. Life is very short and opportunity doesn't always knock more than once. If someone has found a niche that works for them nobody else has the right to tell them to stop doing that and instead do something different. Unfortunately although this film definitely fell within Statham's wheelhouse it lacked any sense of humor, something which is often found within Statham's work. It was plodding and paint by numbers. Also the big bad was already imprisoned while the other bad guys didn't have enough to do. So Statham doesn't have a really good foil to go up against. Although, as is usual for these type of movies, he gets captured and immobilized, there is never any doubt that he's going to escape and show these people that they made their first mistake when they saw him coming and didn't step out of his way. There are one or two scenes that are fun to watch, mostly Statham breaking someone's bones, but otherwise this was ho-hum.

This review could be even shorter. Basically, Homefront can be stripped down to these essentials.
  • Tough guy undercover cop takes down narcotics biker gang. Biker gang boss' son is killed. Imprisoned boss swears revenge.
  • Undercover cop moves to remote southern area with cute as a button tomboyish daughter. His wife is conveniently dead which allows the available but sexy in a wholesome way teacher to make goo-goo eyes at cop.
  • Through really ridiculous coincidences undercover cop gets in ongoing fracas with local crime boss and his inbred/incompetent relatives and employees. Local thugs quickly discover cop's identity and pass this along to biker gang, most of whose members helpfully live only about two to three hours away. Various a$$-kickings and shootouts commence.
  • James Franco is about as convincing as a southern fried tough guy as Pee Wee Herman would have been.
Jason Statham is Phil Broker, former DEA agent. James Franco is Gator Modine, local meth supplier and someone who is by all accounts, dangerous. Winona Ryder is almost unrecognizable as Sheryl Mott, a meth addicted good time girl. Sheryl is someone who everybody "knows" if you get my meaning. Kate Bosworth is wasted as Cassie Bodine, a stringy prideful woman who looks to her brother for revenge (and drugs). Cassie is about one step up from Sheryl but only because she's still married. Take that away and she too would have bikers publicly chuckling about that time she was really desperate to score and did..well you know.  Chuck Zito is Danny T, boss of the biker gang. Frank Grillo is a cipher as bada$$ biker #2. He should have had the role Franco had imo. He radiated a sense of capricious danger which Franco didn't really accomplish in showing imo. If you've never seen any Statham movies before this might be ok but if that's not the case I can't help but think this would be a disappointment. Cliche after cliche abounds. There are few if any surprises. Blame the writing I guess.
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