Cinema Signal:

. "Novocaine"

A thriller whose unsteady stylishness is contrived out of the inspired casting of very foxy Helena Bonham Carter who here casts off the apparel and appearances of 18th century dramas that she's patented and reveals as modern and perky a con girl as this century can offer. And it's no wonder that a straight-laced, successful dentist is willing to give up his practice shortly after bedding her.

Steve Martin is Dr. Frank Sangster, a decent chap who takes pride in his thriving practice, engaged to hygienist Jean Noble (Laura Dern) who runs the office with perfectionist order and considerable success. Her part seems to have been written with the word "anal" in mind.

Into such perfection and success some disorder just invites itself, and this takes the form of new patient, dark-eyed, gorgeously elfin Susan Ivey (Bonham Carter), an addict with a junkie's agenda. Needing a root canal has never been so promising and, for Susan, it's an opportunity to con the dentist out of some extra pain killer, like not ibuprofen. Something a little more compelling suits Susan, say something on the order of Demerol, and she has no qualms about changing Frank's prescription by adding a zero after the "5" quantity.

The little coquette is ready for the inevitable confrontation that follows and deals with it by seducing the good doctor, setting him on a new path. That path unfortunately also includes the disappearance of his entire stock of drugs and, while we might be suspecting Susan, there seems to be other forces at work here. Anyway, Frank is soon lying to the DEA and becomes implicated in a murder.

As darkly complicated as things get, however, the film is never "The Spanish Prisoner", one of Martin's all time bests in a serious mystery vein, nor the simpler and more comedic "The Out-of-Towners". The trouble this presence in the movie world seems to have is the need to somehow combine comedy with serious material. If it has a message, all the better. If it sports his intellectual capabilities, which are admittedly prodigious, better yet. But the key to making that kind of combination work for a movie constantly eludes him and, Bonham Carter notwithstanding, that seems to be the problem with this outing, as well.

The surprise revelation of the bad person's identity and motivations near the end of the film doesn't for a moment hint of particular cleverness but is rather a shoe-horn effort that, like overfilling a cavity, doesn't do the job properly.

Laura Dern transports herself to a higher level of energy with a little more pastiche and zaniness than she's exhibited before, and it energizes the movie with some direction when she's on.

It can't be said that this is a shining moment for Bonham Carter and some might consider it a too distant stretch. I would disagree with that view seeing, in this role, the exposing of a very big talent in a modest undertaking. There's nothing modest about her immense natural beauty and it's lovely to see her in this down-to-earth, contemporary context which, by casting off her corsets and foregoing high tea, may be breaking new ground in her movie career. I, for one, am all for it!

The film is replete with a cast of characters designed to provide the film some depth of coloration. Perhaps the most surreal of these is Lance Phelps (Kevin Bacon), a stereotype of a Hollywood actor far too in love with himself to be taken as anything more than a comedic exaggeration. As Phelps "researches" his upcoming film role as a police detective with the "real" detectives who are questioning Frank, he mindlessly complicates Frank's credibility with the police (as though he didn't know). This cameo is a departure from the realistic tone of most of the rest of the movie and way too much for our credibility.

Such changes in style points out the difficulty writer-director David Atkins had with maintaining the line between farce and mystery. The son and brother of three dentists, an obvious fan and emulator of Hitchcock and other noir masters, this Columbia Film School graduate is, perhaps, a draft away from much needed consistency. Or, maybe, it was Steve Martin's predilections that led him astray.

All in all, "Novocaine" is painless as it plods along trying to provide Martin a cleverly plotted vehicle of treachery and misguided human motivation in a comedic mold but winds up stumbling on its flimsy foundation, leaving us ultimately sedated.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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