Novocaine (2001) Movie Review

Steve Martin’s new movie, Novocaine is a mixture of Film Noir murder mystery and comedy, and that might be its biggest problem — it can’t decide what it wants to be. Like Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Novocaine is a Film Noir in color. And like all Film Noir are want to do, there is a “surprise twist” involving the “real killer” at the end of Novocaine. The whole purpose of watching a Film Noir movie is to guess the “real killer” before the movie reveals it to you. Some films like to throw hints along the way, others don’t.

Novocaine stars Steve Martin as Frank Sangster, a mild-mannered dentist with a thriving practice and a beautiful fianc’e (Laura Dern). Trouble comes to Frank’s patient chair in the form of Susan (Helena Bonham Carter), a wild child and obvious junkie. Frank immediately falls for Susan, and after a night of wild sex, Susan cleans out the clinic’s drug cabinet! Worst, the drugs, with Frank’s name clearly printed on them, begins appearing in the possession of dead teenagers who had bought the drugs from Susan and her violent brother. Now the DEA is investigating Frank for selling drugs, and if that wasn’t bad enough, Susan’s brother ends up dead inside Frank’s house with Frank’s teeth marks all over him! What is going on here…?

My biggest problem with Novocaine is that its first half made me want to abandon the movie and go watch something else. Besides a series of characters that should have a big “A” stamped on their forehead for “a–hole”, I didn’t completely buy Frank’s infatuation with Susan. Okay, Helena Bonham Carter is slightly attractive, but is she the type of “hottie” that would make Frank ruin his life for? No, I think not. As a result, I found Frank’s motivations for going along with the wild and unpredictable (and sometimes very annoying) Susan to be unbelievable and just a little tiresome. Then again, much of the movie’s first half is tiresome.

The second half proves to be much better (although considering the “quality” of the first half, this isn’t saying a whole lot), and writer/director David Atkins goes for comedy. The film works when it goes for laughs, mostly because Steve Martin is a pretty funny guy, and manages to get himself into trouble just by being him. In one funny scene, Martin’s Frank ends up in a hotel room where two overweight lovers are getting hot and steamy. The look on Martin’s face is hilarious. Unfortunately, that’s probably the best scene in the entire movie, and it only lasts for a few seconds.

Martin’s Frank, lending to the Film Noir atmosphere, narrates the film. As a straight Film Noir, Novocaine fails badly. The murder mystery, such as it is, isn’t all that interesting. The victim, Susan’s brother, is better off dead since he was so unlikable (of course, as intended). The movie also has some moments that made me a little queasy, as the insinuation that Susan and her brother are lovers. Not just that, but also the brother was also an abusive incest partner. Was all that necessary?

Another subplot that irritated me was Frank’s brother, Harlan (Elias Koteas), an character that shows up in the beginning to make Frank’s life a living hell, but as all movie characters are want to do, Frank doesn’t seem to mind. Harlan is a drug addict, a slacker with no job, and such a great brother that he apparently has made moves toward Frank’s fianc’e before in the past. And yet, Frank still lets the man move into his house. This, mind you, after Harlan broke into Frank’s house, painted half of his bathroom red, and overdosed on Frank’s medicine cabinet! To top it off, the ungrateful brother didn’t even finish painting the bathroom!

There isn’t all that much to like about Novocaine except for a couple of comedy scenes involving Martin. There is a lengthy cameo by Kevin Bacon as a vain movie actor researching a role as a cop that brings a much-needed break from the movie’s uninspired situations. Helena Bonham Carter is playing her second “junkie whore” role, having come off the exact same role in David Fincher’s Fight Club. The movie’s uninteresting plotting overshadows the rest of the cast, including Laura Dern as a slightly too-obsessive girlfriend.

If Novocaine is most notable for one thing, it will be for its parade of unlikable a-hole characters. If you thought a character couldn’t just step onto the scene and prove to be a complete jerk the first time they open their mouth, then you haven’t seen Novocaine yet. Which leads me to wonder if writer David Atkins knows any person who isn’t a jerk in real life?

David Atkins (director) / David Atkins, Paul Felopulos (screenplay)
CAST: Chelcie Ross …. Mike
Steve Martin …. Frank Sangster
Laura Dern …. Jean Noble
Lynne Thigpen …. Pat
Polly Noonan …. Sally
Helena Bonham Carter …. Susan

Buy Novocaine on DVD