`Novocaine' is more numbing than noir

Review: The double-crossing femme fatale movie doesn't rise to the occasion.

November 16, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Novocaine calls itself a modern-day film noir and thinks that's enough.

Too bad it isn't.

Novocaine's got the right people - a guy who thinks he knows how to handle life, a gal who proves him wrong, fringe characters who pull him in all directions. And it's got the basic plot line down, as its central character finds himself drawn into an emotional and moral maelstrom, where nothing is as it seems, and where his judgment gets progressively clouded.

But the writing isn't nearly as sharp as it thinks it is, and as wayward seductresses go, Helena Bonham Carter doesn't fill the bill. Worse, writer-director David Atkins, in his feature-film debut, makes the mistake of thinking the film-noir conventions on which he builds the film are actually new.

Our hero, Frank Sangster (Steve Martin), is one of those comfortable, upper-middle-class professionals whose pat life has become something of a bore. Not that he realizes it; in his mind, things seem to be going along just swimmingly. His dental practice is thriving, he's made himself a pillar of the community, and he's set to marry his lovely, efficient dental assistant, Jean (Laura Dern).

Into this life of placid bliss one afternoon pops Susan (Bon-ham Carter), ostensibly to get a root canal, but really to case the place and steal drugs. Really, of course, she's there to wow Frank, shake his sensibilities, make him willing to chuck everything he's worked for in the name of a little adventure.

That, after all, is what film-noir femme fatales have been doing for decades. Susan proceeds to lure Frank in, double-cross him, take him places and have him do things (including murder) he never thought possible. Frank's life takes all manner of unexpected turns, and, to outward appearances, he is horrified by it all.

But there's such an adrenaline rush, and Frank's life has been adrenaline-free for so long. ...

Martin is nicely restrained as Frank, never resorting to the outsized mannerisms that usually mark the actor's comic persona. It's an interesting piece of casting that serves the story well; the audience knows there's energy bubbling under Martin's surface and keeps waiting for the moment it escapes.

Bonham Carter, unfortunately, doesn't work nearly as well as the spark plug to ignite Frank's engine. Her Susan is supposed to so enthrall Frank that he's willing to chuck it all - the career, the money, the fiancee, the comfortable life - to be with her. But Bonham Carter, in the heroin chic mold she introduced us to in Fight Club, just isn't that woman.

When Frank first sees her in that dentist chair, she's plain; there's nothing about her appearance or her actions that would draw him in so quickly. Think Michelle Pfeiffer in Into the Night, Melanie Griffith in Something Wild, Kathleen Turner in Body Heat; those are women worth chucking it all for. They make men ache; to paraphrase Raymond Chandler, they're the type of women who make your fillings melt. Bonham Carter, though as beautiful and sensual as any actress, doesn't have the same sort of effect here.

Atkins, whose father and brothers are dentists, has great fun likening the world - and life - to tooth decay; as Frank notes several times in his voiceover narration, teeth can look all white and glistening, but underneath be full of rot and decay. To drive home the point, Atkins (in one of the film's more amusing conceits) shoots his characters as living X-rays; we see their jaws moving, their teeth grinding and decay setting in.

There's a healthy dose of wit in Novocaine, and it's possible Atkins means the whole thing as a parody of the genre; that would explain why Frank goes all ga-ga over the relatively unassuming Susan, why Frank unnecessarily careens his car through the city streets, why the film's final line is such a clunker (in classic film noir, the final line is always a zinger).

Novocaine is neither funny enough to be a comedy, nor dark enough to be a true film noir. Like the drug of the title, it just kind of leaves you numb and anxious to taste the good stuff once again.

Novocaine

Starring Steve Martin, Helena Bonham Carter

Written and directed by David Atkins

Released by Artisan Entertainment

Rated R (language, sexuality)

Running time 95 minutes

Sun score ** 1/2

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