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'Novocaine' starts film noir, turns giddy

Friday, November 16, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

At some point in the middle of "Novocaine," the anesthetic wears off and the movie, which starts off as film noir, turns into a screwball black comedy.


RATING: R for violence, sexuality, language and drug content.

PLAYERS: Steve Martin, Helena Bonham Carter, Laura Dern.

DIRECTOR: David Atkins.

WEB SITE: www.novocaine



Some would say this is a good thing. I would just remind you of the reason you take novocaine in the first place.

Film noir used to take its appellation literally, taking place on wet streets at night with gumshoes in dark trenchcoats trying to extricate themselves from the wiles of the femme fatale. "Novocaine" features a white-haired man in a white smock -- Steve Martin as dentist Frank Sangster -- who works in his brightly lit office with sunlight streaming through the windows.

But a chump is a chump. He takes one look at Susan Ivy (Helena Bonham Carter, in yet another punky role destined to erase all memories of her Merchant-Ivory past) and walks right into her clutches even though he knows he's being taken for a ride.

I could just call the police, he says in a voiceover, but that would mean I'd never see her again.

Susan wants drugs, and Frank can write the prescriptions. He could also lose his license, as well as his fiancee and office nurse, Jean Noble (Laura Dern), who certainly seems to live up to her name. The doc also has a handful at home, where his ne'er-do-well brother Harlan (Elias Koteas) has just shown up. Frank puts up with him, he says, out of an unwarranted sense of guilt.

The fillings start coming loose when someone liberates a cache of drugs from Frank's office safe just as the feds show up to take inventory. Deceit, murder and conspiracy follow in short order.

We begin to realize someone's pulling our leg (don't get me started about teeth) when the police arrive to question Frank about the body he's literally stumbled over. One of the detectives, who is being shadowed by an actor doing research for a movie role, lets the shaggy thespian do the interrogation -- just for practice. It's the prelude for the most dunderheaded incompetence displayed by movie cops since "Police Academy."

As Frank's perfect world continues to unravel, so does writer-director David Atkins' penchant for bizarre humor. The problem is that he comes off like that actor in the movie, so enamored of his own creation that he can't see how silly it often makes him appear.

Steve Martin would be the first to tell you that comedy is not pretty, and murder for laughs has been around at least as long as "Arsenic and Old Lace." But it's best not to change horses in midstream, and a certain droll detachment seems to help movies like "Fargo" or any of Hitchcock's merrily macabre flicks.

Atkins all but shouts and points at his wild and crazy moments. Even Martin, in his early days as a wild and crazy guy, knew he didn't have to call attention to the arrow going through his head.

Bonham Carter is the most interesting player in "Novocaine," both for the continuing deliberate dehabilitation of her image and for the way her character retains a certain equanimity in the heart of the storm. Maybe it's the drugs. But Atkins could have taken a cue from her.

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