“Novocaine” is a benumbed crime comedy of sorts that could have used a lot more bite. A mildly offbeat item about a suburban dentist who’s set up for a fall by a femme fatale more vampirish than vampish, this is a Steve Martin vehicle that’s not prankish or weird enough by half. Artisan can expect modest theatrical returns for a picture that feels undernourished in all departments.
First-time director David Atkins, a former rock ‘n’ roll drummer whose father and two brothers are all dentists, served up some appealingly eccentric, if not entirely focused, ideas in his script for Emir Kusturica’s 1993 American feature “Arizona Dream.” Current picture has a few quirky bounces in it, but they’re curiously tame, timid and, ultimately, inconsequential, enlivened only by the hope that Martin will break out of his shell, which he only really does at the very end.
Simple setup presents Martin as a successful upscale dentist, Frank Sangster, in a nondescript area who far too easily succumbs to a small-time plot against him. Engaged to his efficient and supportive dental hygienist, Jean (Laura Dern), Frank has presumably walked the straight and narrow until Susan (Helena Bonham Carter) walks in off the street in need of a root canal and some heavy medication.
Frank falls for the exotic looking creature when she obligingly does something Jean won’t do: have sex in the office dental chair. From here on he’s a goner, an easy mark from whom Susan and her violent brother Duane (Scott Caan) can steal a vast supply of office narcotics.
Uninspiring stretches are devoted to Frank trying to get his drugs back, lying to Jean about what’s going on and trying to track Susan down and get her to be a good girl and return the drugs. Frank is rewarded for his efforts by some grisly incriminating mayhem that leads the police to his door, triggering a desperately clever escape gambit by Frank that’s too impossibly bizarre to be genuinely funny but is undeniably original all the same.
While not intended to be credible, script is so implausible as to prevent one from going along with it even for fun. Entire action hinges on Frank’s fatal attraction to Susan, but Bonham Carter is so convincingly done up as a filthy, unkempt, fringe-dwelling druggie that it’s impossible to believe that this man, who wears rubber gloves on the job, would lay a bare finger on her; the first thing a normal person would do is throw her in the bath for a good scrub.
Nor does the direction try to compensate for the script’s deficiencies by pushing for a bold visual style. Pic is very plain, with no atmosphere evoked by the Chicago-area settings, and action is not highlighted in a way that maximizes what meager comic potential exists.
Martin showed his potential for darker-than-usual roles as early as “Pennies From Heaven,” but this reps a half-hearted stab at something different; neither naturalistic nor fully deadpan, perf is restrained but without anything definable bubbling underneath. Neither Bonham Carter nor Dern is used effectively, Elias Koteas pops up briefly as Frank’s unlikely ne’er-do-well brother, and Kevin Bacon turns in a somewhat amusing unbilled cameo as a hip movie star tagging along with the police on Frank’s case in preparation for a cop picture.
Production values are average.