Apr 3, 2015

Review: Novocaine (2001)

Who doesn't love Steve Martin? He's had a long and successful career as a comedic actor and I suppose he's earned his "repose" that I would say began in the early 2000's. It hasn't all been bad by any means, but two Pink Panther movies and two Cheaper by the Dozen movies in one decade? That's disappointing to say the least. All the same, Martin's done enough in the rest of his filmography to make up for those movies if you ask me. Plus he's still as funny as ever on Twitter.

Novocaine didn't end up really setting the box office on fire when it was released despite a highly publicized romance between Steve Martin and costar Helena Bonham Carter that developed during filming. I suppose it's because black comedies are a pretty hard sell. "Morbid humour" is pretty niche I think and that's exactly what Novocaine is all about. Writer/director David Atkins never even really found anymore work in Hollywood besides a failed TV series starring French Stewart playing a take on Atkins himself as a struggling Hollywood writer. Talk about irony.


At a Glance

Genre: comedy, crime, drama
Directed by: David Atkins
Produced by: Paul Mones, Daniel M. Rosenberg, Michele Weisler
Written by: David Atkins
Music by: Steve Bartek
Running time: 95 minutes
Production company: Artisan Entertainment, Numb Gums Productions Inc.
Distributed by: Artisan Entertainment, Odeon, Lauren Films, etc.
Country: United States
Language: English
Budget: $8,000,000
Box office: $2,534,372 (Worldwide)

IMDb entry
Rotten Tomatoes entry

Starring: Steve Martin, Helena Bonham Carter, Laura Dern, Elias Koteas, Scott Caan, Lynne Thigpen, JoBe Cerny, Preston Maybank, Kevin Bacon, Keith David, Chelcie Ross, Polly Noonan 



Dr. Frank Sangster (Steve Martin) lives a boring and uneventful life. Regardless of that, as a dentist he's been very successful and he's happily engaged to his meticulous dental hygienist Jean Noble (Laura Dern). His down-on-his luck brother Harlan (Elias Koteas) can be troublesome on occasion, but it's nothing to get wound up about. However, things quickly spiral out of control when a beautiful drug addict (Helena Bonham Carter) arrives for an appointment and seduces him.


For me, the big thing about black comedies is that they have to strike a balance between being funny and being dark while also figuring out just how over-the-top they should be. Some black comedies go absolutely nuts with over-the-top-ness and the best example of that is Death to Smoochy. Novocaine finds itself in a bit of a disappointing place though. At times it'll be quite dark and quite funny, but other times it's more of a snoozefest. Never really able to find its footing, Novocaine feels tamer than it should be.

Still, there are some pretty memorable moments spread around. Some of David Atkins' best writing is when he compares tooth decay to a lie. As Frank Sangster narrates, once you tell a lie it will deepen just like tooth rot eventually does. Accompanied by images of people's jaws being X-rayed as they chew, it's strangely creepy. Sangster finds that out firsthand as he lies to cover his secret goings-on with his new patient Susan who he has a genuine thing for.

Things can get quite hectic, violent and at times laugh out loud funny. Laura Dern in particular is a surprising source of laughs and so are the small appearances by Kevin Bacon and Keith David. Helena Bonham Carter is also quite well utilized and feels believable as a seductive and mysterious druggie. I couldn't help but feel that Steve Martin was a little bit misused though. Clearly he was meant to play a boring everyman as he often does, but he just wasn't given many opportunities to truly take over any of his scenes. There's still some classic Martin here and there but he seems to be holding back.

I also had trouble taking the relationship between Frank Sangster and Susan very seriously. There seemed to be a disconnect between Steve Martin and Helena Bonham Carter which is strange since they were linked romantically in real life. I guess it's possible that off-screen chemistry doesn't instantly translate into on-screen chemistry, but it's pretty strange. Something was just off between the two. 

Novocaine is a bit of a mystery film and what really ends up being the truth was a surprise to me. It's also pretty funny and that makes the last quarter of the film its strongest portion if you ask me. The solution that Frank comes up with to solve all his problems is a perfect mix between dark and funny. It makes me wish that the whole movie could've struck that same balance more often. So while the destination of Novocaine very satisfying, the journey to get there was missing something.

Novocaine strikes gold for about fifteen minutes from its climax and onwards. That's not to say it doesn't have some other effective scenes, but as a whole it's pretty inconsistent. I'm a fan of the sum, but not so much of the individual parts in Novocaine which seem to be lacking and generally flat. There's also a bit of a disconnect between Steve Martin and Helena Bonham Carter which makes Laura Dern an even more valuable commodity. As far as black comedies go, Novocaine lacks in blackness and in comedy.



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