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(2001) (Steve Martin, Helena Bonham Carter) (R)

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Black Comedy: A dentist finds his life unraveling when he's framed for murder after falling for a drug addict posing as a patient.
Frank Sangster (STEVE MARTIN) is a man who seems to have it all. Not only does he have a thriving dental practice, but he's also engaged to his beautiful assistant, Jean Noble (LAURA DERN). Things begin to change, however, when his deadbeat brother, Harlan (ELIAS KOTEAS), shows up, much to Jean's displeasure. It gets worse when Frank finds himself drawn into an affair with Susan Ivey (HELENA BONHAM CARTER), a drug addict who poses as a patient so that she can get to professional grade narcotics.

If that's not bad enough, Susan's lowlife thug of a brother, Duane (SCOTT CAAN), starts making trouble for Frank. Thus, when someone ends up dead in Frank's home, the dentist finds his life turned upside down. Not only are detectives Larry Lunt (KEITH DAVID) and Lily Pons (KAROL KENT) viewing him as a likely suspect - while the former allows a big name actor, Lance Phelps (KEVIN BACON), to research playing a detective by questioning Frank - but he also finds his lies to Jean and others progressively getting worse.

As the evidence eventually points to Frank as the suspect, he does what he must to figure out who's really responsible, all while trying to sort out his feelings toward both Jean and Susan.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
When it comes to career choices as an actor or actress, performers usually choose varied roles for several reasons. For one, they want some variety in their professional lives so that they face new challenges, stretch their thespian wings and don't become stale. The other reason, obviously tied to the first, is that such performers don't want to be typecast or pigeonholed into a certain role or type of character, something Sean Connery faced for years while trying to shake off that whole 007 thing.

While it's unlikely that comedian turned actor Steve Martin is overly worried about that happening to him - after all, he already overcame that whole "wild and crazy guy" persona after appearing in more than 25 films - his role in "Novocaine" marks the second time he's played a dentist. After memorably doing so in "Little Shop Of Horrors" and now this picture, are we seeing a trend here? Will he play another dental practitioner in fifteen or so years? Was he such a professional in another life? Did he miss his real calling by choosing to be an entertainer?

While we may never know the truth about such matters, it's unlikely many patients would want to have him as their dentist after seeing either of these two films. Of course, here at least he's not the sadistic sort who likes to inflict pain on others, or then again, is he?

An unusual and uneven black comedy, the film has something of a film noir feel - the smart talking narrator and femme fatale are dead give aways - mixed with a more modern visual flair. The latter comes in the form of all of the dental metaphors for the story and its theme including some fascinating old x-ray movies of people doing ordinary things that are symbolic of more lying beneath the surface than is otherwise visibly suggested.

In relation to that, there's some great noirish dialogue about lies being like cavities in that they start out small and seem innocuous at first, but then grow and get worse as they progress and spread. Accordingly, the story involves deceit, betrayal and murder and features an otherwise ordinary guy who errs in fidelity and then makes it worse by lying about it.

Then there's the added little bit about others setting him up as the patsy in their plan. Thus, we have the not so innocent man whose life spirals out of control and leads to him being framed for something he didn't do. It's a story we've seen countless time before, albeit not with these exact particulars. Yet, for the most part, it works for a good amount of time.

As the imperfect hero, Steve Martin ("Bowfinger," "The Spanish Prisoner") initially brings the proper sort of aura and attitude to his character and has the right tonal inflection for the old-fashioned voice over. Nevertheless, he doesn't quite feel right once things start falling apart as he's not entirely convincing as the hero on the run, a point that isn't helped by the inconsistent tone with which screenwriter and first time director David Atkins ("Arizona Dream") surrounds his character and injects into the proceedings.

Going for a mixture of Hitchcock suspense and goofy comedy with equally goofy characters - namely Keith David ("There's Something About Mary," "Always") and an uncredited Kevin Bacon ("Hollow Man," "My Dog Skip") as a detective and his Hollywood "understudy" respectively in various scenes that feel out of place here - Atkins doesn't quite get the right combination or succeed with the individual elements. Somewhat akin to being under the influence of Novocain, the film isn't as sharp as it should be.

The various twists and turns that inevitably show up, while not always completely predictable, also don't have the fun edge one would expect for a film like this (and one of them, where two characters just so happen to be hiding in a closet when a bad character makes an incriminating telephone call, is a case study in lazy/sloppy filmmaking, unless Atkins is mocking just that). The result is a picture that's certainly easy enough to watch, but never quite feels as wickedly fun and/or suspenseful as it should, and often doesn't make complete or at least credible sense.

For instance, we never sense whatever it is that makes Frank fall under Susan's spell so suddenly, or why he'd choose her over Jean (something a few minor script tweaks could have remedied). Nor does it seem logical that the police wouldn't take Frank down to the station after finding a murder victim in his house, or that they wouldn't be following his every move after that.

As those two women so intricately woven into the protagonist's life, Helena Bonham Carter ("Planet of the Apes," "Fight Club") and Laura Dern ("Dr. T and the Women," "Jurassic Park") deliver competent performances, with Carter doing her down and dirty impish thing, while Dern purposefully, but not altogether successfully, overacts in her role, supposedly for comedic effect.

Elias Koteas ("Fallen," "Gattaca") and Scott Caan ("American Outlaws," "Ready to Rumble") also appear in something of a disturbed siblings subplot where they complicate the lives of their brother and sister respectively. Yet, they only really serve as additional mechanisms for the filmmaker's greater overall plot that tries to be clever in its complications, but doesn't quite go far enough in conceiving or executing them.

By the end - which by the way, is more memorable for its dental gruesomeness than the sort of successfully creative redemption and solution on the part of the protagonist that it's trying to achieve - the film certainly will not have bored most viewers.

Yet, for all of its attempts at suspense and black humor, the film feels like a patient that, despite his or her diligent efforts at doing the requisite brushing and flossing, doesn't do a good enough job to avoid the dentist having to give them the bad checkup news. Accordingly, although "Novocaine" isn't filled with cavities, its smile and bite aren't perfect and thus it rates as just a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 26, 2001 / Posted November 16, 2001

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