SPOILER ALERT!With an excellent cast, interesting script, and deft first time directing, it's a shame that Novocaine falls at the last, ultimately ending up less of a film that one hopes it would be. Director David Atkins has previously worked with no less a talent than Emir Kusturica (co-writing a 1993 production) and some of the Slav's love of the offbeat has obviously rubbed off on the American, for the present film is odd enough to make it quirkily memorable, if uneven.
Steve Martin plays the stressed-out dentist Frank Sangster (a return to a profession, incidentally, with which he had much success in The Little Shop Of Horrors, 1986). Sangster leads a mildly successful, blameless life, having acquired a successful practice, and is engaged to the prim and super efficient Jean (Laura Dern). The abrupt appearance of a new patient, the delectable Susan (Helena Bonham Carter) changes all that, especially when their initial dalliance is concluded and it turns out that she has an aggressive, drug-dealing brother...
Upon investigation, Novocaine proves that relatively rare beast, a comic noir. Combining the respectable nightmare of such classic genre films as Scarlet Street (1945) with the mild self-mockery of Martin's earlier HouseSitter (1992), it's a film which demonstrates that paranoia and obsession, mixed deftly with comic caricature and timing, can be very effective. From the moment he first sees her so provocatively seated in the chair, the archetypal femme fatale, red top and all, Susan unerringly draws the conservative dentist into a web of confusion, uncertainty and fear. His preoccupation with her leads him to take some doubtful professional decisions, and then cover up his mistakes with further obfuscations and untruths. Soon his life has deteriorated into persecution, scandal and suspicion of murder. Before he met Susan he admits he had the 'illusion' of a perfect life. Now he understands that life is like the process of tooth decay, that one tiny lie wedged behind the smooth surface of normal living can spread, and rot away the veneer entirely.
Something of novocaine-induced hallucination itself, this fast paced movie is occasionally in danger of seeming too breathless. One twist follows another as Sangster battles to clear his name and establish his romantic credentials with Susan. It's a tribute to the fledgling director that his narrative runs as smoothly as it does, aided by some discrete camera moves and sensitive pacing. The introduction of uncredited Kevin Bacon playing Lance Phelps, the ever-beaver actor doing research, adds an extra fillip at the halfway mark. Naively practising his tough-cop-role-to-be on Sangster's developing case, the gormless Phelps is a reminder of the hard boiled plots providing inspiration for this film's procedurals, although his last conversation with the dentist about the difference between movies and real life is slightly lame. Some other scenes, like the cross cutting between the coupling in the dentist's chair and Jean's aggressive karate practice, or the comic business with Sangster hiding in Susan's motel room, are particularly effective, the genial Martin's attempts to portray sexual angst, or the misjudged denouement, less so.
"For the first time it occurred to me that I didn't belong here... that I was supposed to be somewhere else." Thus reflects the bewildered and put-upon dentist as the plot thickens. It is a feeling of being helplessly caught up in escalating events, of being morally lost, that's typically noir and amongst the film's best assets. Sangster's woes are not only his fault, as he gradually realises, when the accompanying conspiracies are exposed. But much, too, can be laid at the hands of typically cruel and ironic fate: Susan's red panties being in his pocket, his accidental stabbing of Duane in the hand, or his ignorance of the shooting that's recorded by the victim at the end. (An irony left surprisingly unexploited.) This feeling is amplified by the dentists' persistent voiceover: wiser and sadder, a presumably doomed man gloomily contemplates the cruel turn of events - an expositional technique entirely characteristic of noir. In many ways Novocaine is more satisfying as a genre piece than, say, the Coen brothers' rather calculated The Man Who Wasn't There (2001). It's also less arch than the earlier good-natured Martin vehicle, the spoof Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982).
Novocaine is a film rich in character acting. Bacon's cameo is one obvious example, but Scott Caan (James' son) proves a suitably brutish Duane, Elias Koteas a groggily disreputable brother Harlan, and Laura Dern smiles falsely as the vixen in Sangster life. This overall excellence goes down the cast, right to the snide DEA investigator who erupts so ineffectually at the end, or the investigating detective. Bonham Carter clearly models her slutty performance on Fight Club's Marla Singer which, although necessarily conceived on a smaller scale here, is still effective as portraying a woman who, secretly, is desperate.
Which bring us to the matter of the ending. Why Atkins decided to write such an unconvincing close is uncertain. Whilst it makes neat use of the aforementioned novocaine at a key time, Sangster's bold, bizarre, and grisly plan to be free of all entanglements, though interesting, betrays the tension built up previously. Jean is packed off to an apt hell, endlessly straightening cushions in her prison cell while, in a scene that cried out for a final bump down to earth a la Brazil, her former fiancé finds bliss and marital harmony amidst sunflowers. Unfortunately, the viewer feels that the dentists' travails are unlikely to have been so easily resolved, and chokes on the implication that fate can so easily be bought off. We pine for that final twist, a final irony in line with what has gone before. Such a lack may, of course, be all part of the joke. But the ending feels lame and, if not enough to spoil the film completely, leaves it dramatically unsatisfying. Having said that, if you like Steve Martin or Helena Bonham Carter, and enjoy a neatly done comedy thriller, then you should see this.
DVD extras: trailer and scene access only.