movie review by
Gary Johnson


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Director David Atkins knows dentistry. At least he should. His father is a dentist. And his two brothers are dentists. But somehow Atkins avoided the lure of dentistry himself. With his new movie, Novocaine, he has made amends (of a sort) for this parting of ways with the family profession. Dentistry plays a key role both in terms of setting and characterizations, as well as the storytelling technique: every now and then the movie screen turns into a jittering, strobing dental x-ray with voice-over narration that focuses on the growing decay -- a reflection of the lead character's state of mind. "Lying is a lot like tooth decay one small lie and everything unravels from there," says dentist Frank Sangster.

Steve Martin plays this character. Martin isn't altogether new to dentistry. In Little Shop of Horrors, he played a dentist who loved to deal out pain, and now in Novocaine, he picks up the dental smock once again. On its surface, Novocaine resembles a Hitchcockian thriller: an upstanding member of his community, a dentist, finds himself caught in a web of deceit. After a man is killed, all the evidence points at Frank Sangster. We know he didn't do it (at least we're relatively confident he didn't). So the movie focuses on his struggles to free himself from the trap. Hitchcock loved plots that ensnared innocent men in situations that quickly promised to consume them--as in The 39 Steps, Saboteur, and North by Northwest; however, Hitchcock never had a star like Steve Martin, and Martin creates an entirely different spin on the somewhat familiar material.

Director Atkins seems to realize what he has in Martin, so he takes advantage of Martin's unusual comic presence -- which can be alternatingly uptight and absurd. So as the plot starts to unfold and Frank gets drawn into the central deception, the movie acquires a strange, almost-brutal brand of energy, for why should we care what happens to this austere professional? But through Martin's presence, the stiff characterization becomes an advantage becomes it makes him all the more human. He's not trying to be likable, but paradoxically this makes him all the more vulnerable.

To be sure, Martin is a very unlikely hero, but through his presence, Novocaine becomes an unusual and intriguing variation on the usual thriller formulas. The casting throughout Novocaine is inspired in a similar fashion. Laura Dern plays Frank's girlfriend, Jean Noble (be sure to pay attention to the character names throughout the movie). She is an ultra-ambitious and utterly officious dental hygienist who tries to micro-manage all of Frank's decisions. Helena Bonham Carter plays a dental patient named Susan Ivey who has a hankering for pain killers. We know she's trouble right away, from the bruise on her cheek, her fishnet stockings, and her spiky hair. She uses her body to entice Frank, while secretly planning to clean out the entire stock of drugs from his office. Carter's role is not that different from the one she played in Fight Club, but few actresses can be so deliciously nasty. Susan is out to use Frank--and he can't get her out of his mind. Something about the uncleanliness that she represents--in contrast to the sanitized life that he has lived--makes him obsess over her. He's willing to give up everything for Susan.

A key to the movie's tone comes in the scene where Frank first succumbs to Susan's charms. She's in his office, getting some dental work done, when they kiss. It's not exactly the most romantic locale, bright lights and sparkling tile. Atkins juxtaposes the breathy action in Frank's dentist chair with brief camera shots of Frank's girlfriend Jean working out in judo class. Her fist strikes and she grunts. She turns and kicks. Meanwhile Frank's nostrils quiver as Susan moans. Many other filmmakers would have focused on the passion solely, but Atkins undercuts the passion with a blistering dose of black comedy.

Atkins actively courts the unexpected in Novocaine and he ends up with an unusual movie that will likely throw many audience members for a loop. The movie has been bounced around Artisan's release schedule the last few months as if they are not sure how to handle it. It's not exactly a thriller. It's not exactly a comedy. But definitions be damned. This is one of the year's wittiest movies.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]