Retro Review: Novocaine

Written: November 12, 2001

A little Sam Slade, a little “Nurse Betty” and all dentist are some of the words and phrases that can best describe the new “black comedy” Novocaine starring Steve Martin.

Dr. Frank Sangster (Steve Martin) is a comfortable dentist who maintains a very healthy and independent practice. He has a lovely, organized and demure dental assistant, Jean (Laura Dern), who happens to be his lover. Frank has always had a fantasy, which Jean is too pure to captivate.

When a mysterious and dark stranger (Helena Bonham Carter) seduces Frank in his own dentist’s chair, Frank’s fantasy comes true and Frank becomes intertwined in a mystery that will change his dull and comfortable existence forever.

When Novocaine opens, you believe that this is going to be a clever little film about a dentist with a Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer twist. Martin’s character delivers narration that is very similar to those old gumshoe detective films of yesteryear. A lot of this narration is very clever and tongue in cheek. I really liked this aspect of the film in its beginning.

The problems arise when “Novocaine” begins to suffer from an identity crisis about 50 minutes in. The film seems to be going for a “Nurse Betty” black comedy angle but the acting from Martin and Carter is much too serious to allow any real comedy to come forth. Is this film trying to be a black comedy or a drama?

I did find that Laura Dern’s performance was so over the top that her character tried to keep the film in the black comedy genre.

I liked Dern who delivers the best performance of the leads. As Frank’s life starts to disintegrate, Dern’s character becomes more and more unglued. I loved how Dern handles this in the early goings with such ease and then erratically towards the end. I love how she unravels.

Martin has always had a problem with drama and an audience connecting with him as a comedian. When he takes his character seriously and as more of a “fugitive” style character the film falls apart. It is a shame since Martin was so good in the “Spanish Prisoner” and “Grand Canyon”.

Novocaine left me hollow when it concluded because the film was such a mess in its final half. The writer’s really should have decided on what kind of film they wanted the audience to connect with before trying to be too clever.

(2.5 out of 5)

So Says the Soothsayer.

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