starring Steve Martin, Helena Bonham Carter, Laura Dern, Scott Caan
written and directed by David Atkins
by Walter Chaw An ill-fated hybrid of Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid and the dentist portions of Frank Oz's Little Shop of Horrors, Novocaine lacks a cohesive tone. It vacillates from dark comedy to Forties-style melodrama, from light-hearted slapstick to medium-heavy gore and nudity, and in one particularly inexplicable sequence, Novocaine attempts to be a post-modernist Lacanian thing involving a character's heightened self-awareness as a fictional construct. It's neither funny nor the slightest bit suspenseful, too jumbled and arbitrary to ever sustain much in the way of tension or interest. Even its central conceit--a plot to steal pharmaceuticals and the resultant chaos when the victim catches on to the scheme--is so essentially flawed that the revelation of the guilty party, which occurs after we've spent two desperate hours suspending increasingly leaden disbelief, isn't so much a shocker as a "shrugger."
Dr. Frank Sangster (Steve Martin) is a fastidious dentist with a booming practice who is engaged to Jean Noble, his southern belle caricature of a hygienist (Laura Dern basically reprises her performance from Dr. T & the Women). One day, junkie whore Susan Ivy (Helena Bonham Carter) shows up needing a root canal, and Dr. Frank decides to indulge in a little after-hours drilling. When morning comes, medicine from his office (including a few thousand milligrams of pharmaceutical cocaine) has gone missing. Confronting Susan in her motel room, Dr. Frank earns the ire of Susan's psychotic brother Duane (Scott Caan), all of this leading to an accidental death; the confession to uptight Jean of Dr. Frank's fling with Susan; a somewhat explicit love scene; a grisly stabbing and shotgunning; the introduction of an actor shadowing a cop for research of a part (Kevin Bacon, in the Michael J. Fox role from The Hard Way); and a series of utterly unsurprising genre turns.
Opening with nifty X-ray video of people eating and drinking, Novocaine launches into that hoary noir device of laconic voice-over, with Steve Martin talking about teeth and the food stuck therein. Tired symbolism will continue throughout the film, its hopeless purpose to draw the ever-divergent plot back to dental imagery. From what I can tell, first-time director David Atkins is trying to show the duality of his stereotypes not through chiaroscuro and slatted-blind shadows, but the actual glimpses at the skull and crossbones lurking beneath our skin. As a consequence, each time we return to Dr. Frank's profession and see wholly illogical insertions of dental props (an intra-oral camera, dentures, and, finally, yes, novocaine), Novocaine grinds to a complete halt--causing the audience to stop and contemplate the twists, none of which can lay claim to a pathology. Novocaine is the worst kind of mystery/thriller in that it refuses to play fair with its audience. If a film has no rules, then there is no suspense generated by the breaking of them.
It's unbelievable that Dr. Frank would fall in love with Susan Ivy and therefore also unbelievable that Susan's plan could be to develop the need for a root canal (!) and then seduce the good doctor in his office. It's even less plausible that Susan Ivy would wind up falling for Dr. Frank; Martin plays him, against type, as a most pathetic, impotent schlep, and while the entire plot relies on Dr. Frank lying to his fiancé, there is nothing in either the character or Martin's portrayal to suggest that straight-arrow Frank would keep a found five-dollar bill, much less agree to any sort of subterfuge involving drugs and murder.
As is symptomatic of a debut feature, Novocaine suffers from gimmicky and sometimes sloppy camerawork (watch for an unintentional cameo by Atkins reflected, Persona-like, in a glass cabinet in Dr. Frank's room); the film is also an endurance test of bad acting (Bacon and Dern are in the early Raspberry running). Impossible to classify not for its intended cross-genre quirkiness but instead its incompetence, Novocaine is probably better when you're actually on the title analgesic, though I wouldn't count on it.