Friday, November 16, 2001

“Novocaine,” like “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” finds it amusing to trifle with a pretext derived from the crime fiction of James M. Cain. As before, it’s the ghost of Mr. Cain that will enjoy the last laugh. Apart from the punning title and an opening credit sequence that exploits X-ray images of human beings in a ghoulishly droll fashion, “Novocaine” is acutely short on cleverness. The mystery plot, dependent on double-crosses and a romantic triangle, begins falling apart long before writer-director David Atkins can mount a salvage effort of an excruciating kind, a futile blend of brutality and bravado.

Steve Martin is the rather bewildering choice as narrator-protagonist, a smugly successful and amorous dentist named Frank Sangster, destined to be played for a sucker by designing women.

Sangster’s office recalls a bit of the humorous congestion of Richard Gere’s gynecological practice in Robert Altman’s “Dr. T & the Women,” in which the good doc was surrounded by an admiring harem of patients, staff and kinfolk.

Sangster isn’t that flourishing, and to his grief, he isn’t that ethical or self-denying. Smitten with a tawdry new patient, Susan, played by Helena Bonham Carter, he permits his lust to degenerate into runaway disgrace.

Susan appears less attracted to the doctor than to his access to drugs. She alters a Demerol prescription from five tablets to 50 but somehow fails to discourage her patsy.

Chasing Susan jeopardizes not only Sangster’s reputation and practice, but also his romance with an office hygienist ironically named Jean Noble, embodied with statuesque and voluptuous dynamism by Laura Dern, whose powerhouse presence is the only reason to tolerate the movie.

However, she also creates insurmountable credibility problems for the plot, because it scarcely looks probable that a sick sparrow of Miss Bonham Carter’s configuration would represent serious competition for a consort as formidable as Miss Dern’s dental Amazon.

The knowing are bound to suspect that Jean is nursing a few grievances before the movie begins.

Susan brings a wave of life-wrecking opportunists to the doctor’s door.

One is his own wastrel brother, Harlan, played by Elias Koteas, who made a play for Jean in the distant past. The troublemaking-brother gag from “Joy Ride” (and “Reindeer Games” before it) is doubled in “Novocaine,” in which Scott Caan (sort of a casting pun) barges into the fray as Susan’s alleged brother, lawless Duane, determined to clean out the entire supply of pharmaceuticals in Dr. Sangster’s custody.

The comic logic of the unfolding entrapment scheme is that Mr. Martin is being victimized by an elaborate conspiracy.

Moreover, his devious and craven responses enable the conspiracy to accelerate more effectively than it could if the doctor were an honest and honorable member of the community.

For some reason, the writer-director resists closing the trap as tightly as he should, for both the sake of neatness and coldblooded entertainment value.

There’s no compelling reason to root for a reversal of fortune; it’s easier to make a case for the wretches who are sabotaging the doctor than the doctor himself.

Nevertheless, Mr. Atkins must imagine that he has created such a rooting interest because he resorts to an elaborately gruesome method of extrication.

The big joke, sort of, is that it also entails a gargantuan feat of dental extraction, followed by a pyrotechnic flourish. Leaving us with what? A tongue-in-cheek “happy ending” if you care to play along, a dud that pummels itself into incoherence if you don’t.

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide