Novocaine (2001)

  • Time: 95 min
  • Genre: Comedy | Crime | Drama
  • Director: David Atkins
  • Cast: Steve Martin, Laura Dern, Helena Bonham Carter


Dr. Frank Sangster is a straight-laced dentist who because of one innocent lie, finds his tidy, prosperous life transformed into a comic quagmire of illicit sex, illegal drugs and inexplicable murder in this brilliantly offbeat, bitingly comedic film!

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  • Steve Martin has had an interesting career. From zany stand-up comic to well-respected dramatic actor, he’s managed to make canny decisions in the roles he’s taken and the direction he’s headed. As a result, he’s become one of the more respected performers out there, believable in either comic or dramatic roles. When he’s good, he’s very very good. When he’s mailing it in – he’s in Novocaine.

    On the surface, Novocaine has a lot going for it. Martin plays Frank Sangster, a dentist with a thriving practice and a beautiful, perfect fiancee, Jean (Laura Dern). Everything starts to unravel for the doctor after a new patient, Susan Ivey (Helena Bonham Carter) sits in his chair and starts a chain of events that lead inevitably towards disaster.

    It’s the most familiar of film noir plots – innocent and law-abiding man meets a girl that’s a far cry from his perfect ideal. Afterwards, he starts making poorer and poorer decisions as he’s led astray from his normal life – all while scrambling to hold onto what he’s losing. And it starts off promising enough, as Sangster finds himself drawn to this woman who is nothing like the anal-retentive and bland Jean. Susan is something different, wilder and less-restrained. It’s a similar role to Carter’s turn in Fight Club, though not as extreme (still a far cry from her Merchant Ivory days).

    The setup is fine, and seems to stir the pot quite nicely, giving the conflicted Frank a web that he starts to get lost in. The problems arise in the second and third acts of the film, where the plots and conspiracies start to be revealed. This is normally where the tension would start to build and where the rules are thrown out the window. But there really isn’t much tension in Novocaine – nothing beyond the natural squeamishness you might have while watching dentists at work. The forces arrayed against Frank are bland and unimaginative – it doesn’t take much thought to figure out who’s doing the double-crossing, and every supporting character in the film is a complete cardboard cutout off the background character assembly line.

    There’s not much thought here, and even the theme is a bit confused. Is this a serious thriller, where paranoia and betrayal rule the day? Or is this a sly wink at the genre, adding elements of the absurd to a very familiar formula? It’s a question the filmmakers don’t seem to have a ready answer for, and the whole movie suffers as a result.

    Many of those involved are incapable of truly bad performances, and Novocaine isn’t really a bad movie. It’s just not an inspired one.

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