December 6, 2001

Numbing Novocaine

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Novocaine, David Atkins’ first directorial effort, has all the hallmarks of a first film: it is an often-clumsy, genre-blending picture that frequently gets mixed up with itself. From its opening moments of intense music juxtaposed with shots of cranial x-rays, the movie’s overall togetherness falters — the various genres Atkins plays with don’t blend.

Steve Martin stars as Frank Sangster, a mildly cheerful dentist in the spirit of most of Martin’s characters. Frank’s humdrum life is quickly interrupted by the unexpected arrival of his black sheep brother Harlan (Elias Koteas), whose appearance begins a series of tense moments that jockey for position with the lighter aspects of the film, resulting in a wobbly and imbalanced script. Frank is also quickly beset with a drug-stealing vixen of a patient, Susan Ivey (Helena Bonham Carter), and her sociopathically violent brother Duane (Scott Caan). Throw in troubles with the DEA and a deteriorating relationship with his girlfriend/office assistant, Jean Noble (Laura Dern), and Frank’s life can’t get any worse. At least until the police begin to suspect him of murder.

Novocaine’s problem is its constant vacillation between a dark piece of noir film and every other light-hearted Martin comedy. They clash tectonically.

The script isn’t helped along by Martin’s constant smiling. Like Kevin Kline in his latest role (Life As a House), Martin seems hopelessly out of place in a film that can’t decide if it’s going to be a light comedy or a dark thriller.

Martin is actually overshadowed by Caan, who steals the show with a performance dripping with intense rage. He shares a unique dynamic with Carter, who seems cut right out of Fight Club and pasted on to this film with only a change of clothes. They have a few fine moments together: at times having a certain eerie sexual tension between them. Even this slightly alluded-to aspect is much stronger and more believable than the supposed tension between Martin and Carter.

The film’s soundtrack is simply out of control; from the moment it underscores the opening shots of office mundaneness, to the point at which it finally fades into background noise. It is repetitive and often out of place. There are some visual delights: frequently showing characters through an x-ray view is an interesting and well-placed effect.

Novocaine grasps for that special brand of dark comedy that flows through movies like Fargo or Little Shop of Horrors, where Martin did a much better job of playing a dentist. But the film doesn’t make it. It’s a Frankenstein monster composed of uncomplimentary parts that can’t hold up their own weight. It’s a numbing film that is appropriately named, at least.

Archived article by Kiah Beverly