directed by David Atkins
(Artisan, 2001)

It was just a white lie, a tiny, off-the-cuff, "keep everybody happy" white lie. But boy, does Dr. Frank Sangster pay the price.

Spun from his orderly world of dental appointments on the quarter hour, Sangster soon finds himself on top of a passionate patient in the dental chair, robbed of his narcotics supply, under investigation for illegal drug sales and, soon, murder, and dealing with a furious fiancee, a deadbeat brother and the half-cocked brother of the aforementioned passionate patient.

Novocaine, a first directing effort by David Atkins, aims to be a dark, edgy comedy about what happens to an ordinary guy caught in a spiral of circumstances that, by sheer number, become extraordinary.

The cops are after Sangster for murder; the federal authorities are convinced he's selling drugs. There's a body in his foyer, and it has Sangster's bite marks all over it. He wants to confide in his fiancee, Jean (Laura Dern), but he finds himself instead in the motel room of Susan (Helena Bonham Carter), his drug-addicted, passionate patient.

And every lie he tells, every time he stalls, he digs his grave a little deeper.

What Novocaine has going for it is the skill of Steve Martin as Sangster. Wit and a literate intelligence always have been hallmarks of Martin's comedic style, and Novocaine's no different. He can do slapstick, it's true (he did, of course, dance around on happy feet with an arrow on his head and a banjo in his hands at one point in his career), but even that is informed by a braininess not matched by many "serious" actors. The guy's intelligent; David Mamet entrusted him with 1997's The Spanish Prisoner. He also can find the pathos and wistfulness in even the broadest comedy, taking on George Banks in 1991's Father of the Bride remake.

But here, the script by Atkins and first-timer Paul Felopulos is a far cry from Mamet, or even the Father of the Bride screenplay. And a movie that's wallowing in an awful lot of blood -- as Novocaine does -- while still trying to be ironic and self-referential, had better have some witty repartee.

The banter also needs to be matched by a certain manic energy, but, despite the best efforts of Martin, Bonham Carter, Dern and Scott Caan as Susan's brother, the pace is flat. And, while you don't expect discussions about "motivation" from comedies like the Three Stooges shorts, you can expect a movie that bills itself as an intelligent comedy to make the actions of its characters understandable. But for the most part, what Novocaine's characters do, they do because the script requires it.

Novocaine is kind of a cross between two of Martin's earlier films, The Spanish Prisoner and Little Shop of Horrors. But the suspense of Spanish Prisoner, not to mention Mamet's dialogue, tops that of Novocaine, and Martin as Orin Scrivello, DDS, in Little Shop of Horrors is lots more fun than Martin as Dr. Frank Sangster.

If you're a huge fan of Steve Martin, this review should mean nothing: Go get Novocaine, and enjoy what Martin can accomplish with this film. And he's often matched by Bonham Carter and by Dern as his brittle, brilliantly smiled, dental hygienist girlfriend.

But if you're not particularly enthusiastic about any of those three actors, you may feel, halfway through Novocaine, that its title is all too apt.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 4 January 2003

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