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Novocaine (R)
Artisan Entertainment

An off-kilter attempt at a noir whodunit, Novocaine turns out to be a distinctly mediocre vehicle for a distinctly better than middling cast. Steve Martin stars as Dr. Frank Sangster, a successful dentist whose life, on first glance, looks perfectly orderly and satisfying. Laura Dern is Jean, his hygienist and fiance, a lanky swath of perfection with her pastel ensemble outfits and her perfectly coiffed hair. All is well with Frank and Jean in their ultraclean and lucrative universe until Susan Ivey (Helena Bonham Carter) shows up for a root canal just a day after Frank's loser brother, Harlan (Elias Koteas), shows up at his fashionable home.

Bonham Carter's Susan -- a messy, drug-seeking junkie with wide, chocolate eyes -- seduces Frank with ease, and we are told by an awkward voice-over that, at that moment, he begins to question whether his life is on the right track. It's hard to believe that Frank would fall for Susan, even if she does look like Helena Bonham Carter. But when he discovers his narcotics cabinet has been raided, he protects her with the first in a spiraling series of lies that eventually ends in murder. The dead body of Susan's brutish brother (Scott Caan) is found covered with Frank's teeth marks.

In Hitchcockian fashion, Frank becomes the innocent accused of a grisly crime, trying to outrun the cops at the same time he tries to unravel the mystery of who's behind it. Martin's good at this. His guilelessness is convincing, he's quick on his feet and the audience is left rooting for his escape. His budding relationship with Susan begins to make some sense when we see him tenderly attempting to comfort and protect her from her gnarly brother. And Dern's Jean grows more and more fascinating throughout the film. She's a compulsive neatness freak who lines her stuffed animals up just so on the bed, a tae-kwon-do black belt who can obviously kick serious butt, and a seemingly loyal ally to Frank.

All of this should add up to a good thriller with a dash of wit, but it doesn't. As directed and written by David Atkins, Novocaine is clunky and, for the most part, predictable. The film opens and is accented throughout with shots of X-rayed heads, skeletons clacking their teeth as they speak and chew, and Atkins uses the device to distraction, inserting it here and there to little effect beyond annoyance. There are holes in the script, like when Frank is first told that an 18-year-old has been found dead with a bottle of his missing office narcotics. The rattled dentist doesn't ask the kid's name -- an unthinkable gaffe. And Atkins deserves a good thump on the head for the inane postscript scene.

It's clear that much of Novocaine is meant to be tongue-in-cheek humor, but that effort does not succeed. Martin does his jolly best, and delivers a few lines that nearly work ("I'm not that kind of dentist." "People's mouths are important to me."). And Dern's scenes when she becomes overwrought are wonderful. But overall the film is awash in a grayish mist and burdened with a faulty script and awkward editing. The slickness required of a successful noir whodunit is carried off in only a few scenes.

Novocaine is mild entertainment at best. Kind of like a trip to the dentist to get your teeth cleaned where you get a new toothbrush but no laughing gas.

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