2001, R, 95 min. Directed by David Atkins. Starring Kevin Bacon, Elias Koteas, Laura Dern, Helena Bonham Carter, Steve Martin.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Nov. 16, 2001
Novocaine isn't so much a numbing experience as it is an ambivalent one. A modern-day film noir about a straight-arrow dentist framed for murder, it's a black comedy that falls short of its aspirations -- call it a comedy in a muted shade of gray. At its best, a black comedy can jolt you by defying the rules of dramatic and comedic genres, particularly when it delivers the surprise of the perversely unexpected. There are no such sharp edges, however, in Novocaine. Given his lackluster performance, even Martin, who is no stranger to sardonic humor, seems unsure about the film's tone. As the beleaguered protagonist whose teeth marks are discovered on a corpse, Martin plays his role earnestly straight, with very little of the deadpan spin that he's more than capable of conveying. When a mysterious patient (Bonham Carter, in a more benign version of her Fight Club persona) slyly requests a Demerol prescription to ease the pain of a bad tooth, he refuses to comply by responding, “I'm sorry. I'm not that kind of dentist.” While Martin's delivery of this line gets a chuckle, its potential for a bigger laugh is drained dry by the movie's lack of any discernible direction. More important, this righteous comeback (and the situation in which it is said) could have provided some insight into the upright dentist's befuddling downward spiral later. Is it middle-class malaise that prompts him to get horizontal (or diagonal, as the case may be) in the dental chair with the waifish femme fatale looking for something more than just a root canal? Is it a case of fatal attraction that compels him to continue to see her even when all rational reason dictates to the contrary? Other than their initial meeting, which plays like a riff on the first encounter between a hard-boiled detective and a shadowy dame, it's difficult to fathom the intense pull of Bonham Carter's seductress on Martin's hapless dentist, especially when it's clear that she is nothing but trouble from the start. Without clueing you into understanding the good doctor's frame of mind at the outset, the film becomes more obtuse as his plight becomes increasingly darker. True, there are several dental metaphors delivered in the course of the film that attempt to give its narrative some context -- stuff about a decaying tooth's ability to look healthy on the surface -- but they don't fill in the blanks very effectively. In fact, they're too precious to be taken seriously. Director/screenwriter Atkins occasionally uses a stylistic technique that can only be described as an X-ray fade in some of the film's scenes, in which characters' flesh disappears and the radiographic depictions of bones and teeth underneath are revealed. Whether this imagery has symbolic meaning is unclear; in any event, it becomes quickly annoying after a couple of times. About the only thing that makes some kind of sense in Novocaine is Dern's performance as Martin's high-strung fiancée who works as his dental assistant. Dern kicks ass, both literally and figuratively. (The film's funniest moment comes when Dern's character assumes the position of a martial arts pose and starts making loud, threatening noises. This woman means business.) Although the script doesn't always do her character complete justice, Dern seems single-mindedly focused on what the determined perfectionist she plays is all about. When she's onscreen, Novocaine gets the shot in the gum that it so desperately needs. (See related interview with David Atkins on p.48 in this week's Screens section.)