A scene from 'Novocaine'
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*1/2 stars 95 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, November 16, 2001
Directed by David Atkins

Starring Steve Martin, Helena Bonham Carter, Laura Dern, Elias Koteas, Scott Caan, Keith David, Lynne Thigpen, Kevin Bacon


I seriously doubt this movie could even hold your attention on the small screen.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 04.23.2002


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Uncredible, absurdly overwrought conspiracy sinks dental dark comedy about desire gone wrong

By Rob Blackwelder

I apologize in advance for the hokey dental metaphors, but I can't help myself: The incisive plot of the black comedy "Novocaine" is more decayed than a candy-addicted 10-year-old's teeth.

Driven by a conspiracy of preposterous complexity, it is mock-noirish downward-spiral drivel about a dull DDS (Steve Martin) whose too-perfect life is upended when he flips for a junkie femme fatale patient (Helena Bonham Carter). Dumbstruck by out-of-character desire that goes unexplored and unexplained, the dentist gives the burned-out babe a generous prescription of Demerol. The next day there's been a break-in at his office -- all the narcotics are gone and there's a sweater-vested DEA wonk in the waiting room.

Martin lies to protect this girl, who came to his office only once and seduced him with a toothache. Then his life starts to unravel -- starting with his engagement to his blithe but insanely obsessive-compulsive hygienist (Laura Dern). Soon he's confronting a collusion involving Bonham Carter's violent cokehead brother (Scott Caan) and his own willful slacker sibling (Elias Koteas), who has recently invited himself to crash on Martin's Italian leather sofa and pilfer from the dentist's pill box as well. But that's only the beginning of the Machiavellian machination making its way into Martin's life.

In order for "Novocaine" even to get its over-written schemes off the ground, first-time writer-director David Atkins has to sell the idea that prosaic, affluent, middle-aged Martin would be inexorably drawn to a strung-out tramp with track marks on her arms. Atkins absolutely and completely fails to do this. Martin is too much of a sucker for the audience to rally behind him, and as a result the movie slogs forward without any emotional credibility through an increasingly far-fetched series of dark humor discoveries and truly twisted twists (part of a crime cover-up includes a character pulling his own teeth).

Even if Martin's attraction and motivation were believable, the rest of the film is not in the least. How could the conspirators have known he'd fall for Bonham Carter -- who isn't remotely his type -- and cheat on Dern? Why doesn't he implicate Caan to save the girl? Soon Martin learns he's wanted for a murder (based on the most ludicrously inadequate evidence) by watching news -- at home, as if the cops wouldn't have looked for him there. When he discovers the extent of the plot against him, Martin counters with an even more ridiculous stratagem of his own.

There are at least a dozen such plot chasms, and the movie's conclusion requires even more suspension of disbelief -- including buying into the idea that the police would watch only the last half of a surreptitiously made videotape before making an arrest. (The first half would have reveal how very wrong they are.) But the real slap in the face is the insultingly hackneyed and sunshiny epilogue.

Watching this very talented cast wasted on this rubbish is almost as painful as a root canal (there I go again!). It's refreshing to see Martin turn away from cheap comedy and warm-fuzzy family fare, but it's painful to see him blow it so badly. Bonham Carter merely recycles her character from "Fight Club" and adds a drug-addled heart of gold (yeish!). Dern makes a great comedic impression at first, then becomes a cartoon. Even Kevin Bacon is obnoxious in a cameo as a self-absorbed actor riding along with the cops who bust Steve Martin.

There's just so much wrong with "Novocaine" that every time it tries to be appropriately creepy or darkly funny, it's just unpleasant instead.


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