Novocaine, 2001, 2 stars

Nifty but numb

From The Orlando Weekly, 2001

Dark comedy might be the most difficult genre to perfect, as Steve Martin’s Novocaine proves. Despite solid performances, a clever plot and a quirky style, first-time director David Atkins can’t get the mix of light and dark right, and the whole macabre piece comes across as uneven.

Martin is convincing as reputable, mild-mannered dentist Frank Sangster, whose successful world is turned upside down following a tryst with sexy patient Susan Ivy (Helena Bonham-Carter). He cheats on his dental hygienist girlfriend, Jean (Laura Dern), with Susan but soon finds that the temptress’s motives are deeper than the root canal she came in for.

Susan steals drugs from the dentist’s office, and Frank dodges the authorities to both protect Susan and keep his affair secret from Jean. Reluctant to blame Susan, whom he still has a crush on despite her betrayal, Frank confronts instead Susan’s brother, Duane (Scott Caan), the mastermind of the drug theft. In a clever twist, Duane, who wanted the drugs to then sell himself, later turns up dead, and the police turn up at the dentist’s door looking for answers.

With Frank on the run and suspecting his wayward brother Harlan (Elias Koteas) of trying to frame him, the film turns more serious than expected, with the comedic elements hidden behind the police chases and murders. Atkins does manage to elicit a few laughs, thanks to Martin’s offbeat style. And his bizarre inclusion of Kevin Bacon as an actor shadowing the police to get background material for his next movie is one of the film’s best elements.

Atkins’ debut is flawed, though, because it doesn’t know what it wants to be. Its plot is darkly dramatic, yet its dialogue and performances, though clever, often don’t gel with the action. This is a work in progress being pulled in several directions, if not by different people, then by Atkins’ own direction and writing.

Martin is convincing as the do-gooder who slowly sees his life unraveling, and despite the script flaws, he makes his unlikely predicament believable. Carter and Dern too capture every mood that Atkins has created for them, being appropriately sexy, creepy and pathetic at the right times. But it’s the mood swings not of the characters but of the whole film that leave one unaffected, despite the neatly packaged ending.

The tooth is Atkins’ metaphor of choice, with decay of enamel compared to the decay of Frank’s perfect little life. Only by numbing himself to his predicament (hence the novocaine), pulling out the bad teeth and filling in the holes in his life is Frank able to find himself again. It’s an intelligent idea with its share of bright moments, but the film’s smart style gets lost inside an overly serious crime drama.