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[whitespace] 'Novocaine'
Floss and Found Department: Dental phobias abound as Steve Martin and Laura Dern get the cavities out in 'Novocaine.'

Martin's Tooth Of Crime

The effects of 'Novocaine' soon wear off

By Richard von Busack

THERE'S A difference between humor and whimsy, between things that are genuinely funny and things that are easily readable as attempts at humor but don't evoke laughter. Some scenes in Novocaine possess the rhythm and slant of eerie comedy, but the film strays into Tales From the Crypt territory and then rumbles back again to sweetness and light. You can tell what's intended in certain scenes--what the mood is supposed to be--but you can't feel it.

During the titles, a Danny Elfman score accompanies found footage from old science films: X-rayed skeletons, motion pictures of people drinking milk. The references to teeth are meant to set your own teeth on edge.

Casting Steve Martin in the lead role is director/writer David Atkin's single best idea--which isn't to say that Martin's acting works. Like all top-drawer comedians, Martin does have an uncanny side. As a dentist named Dr. Frank Sangster, the aging Martin looks as spotless and synthetic as a capped tooth, but his many voice-overs give away the action. The narration has the air of a last-minute fix-it job, there to describe motives and feelings Dr. Frank's numb face can't imply.

Dr. Frank is on the way to a comfortable, if stifling, life. He's about to marry his office manager, played by Laura Dern as the kind of woman who would devour her husband off a Martha Stewart table setting. She adores stuffed animals and colonial furniture. Seen in her martial-arts class, she looks like a woman longing for a neck to break.

The doctor is certainly ready for a more tractable girl, and she arrives in the form of Susan Ivy, played by Helena Bonham Carter in that lewd gutter-rat style she modeled in Fight Club. In a twinkling, this floozy seduces the dentist and pumps him for drugs. (I don't like to recommend a movie on the basis of a single moment, but Carter's scene in which she teases Martin shows her at her best--and there aren't many better than Bonham Carter right now.)

The meek dentist is hooked and tries to track Ivy down but faces interference not just from his drunken jerk of a brother, Harlan (Elias Koteas), but also from Ivy's own brother, Duane (Scott Caan), who has a violently incestuous interest in her. When Harlan turns up bludgeoned, Frank is the prime suspect. Meanwhile, the DEA starts to make inquires about the missing opiates Ivy wheedled off him.

Dental-office fiendishness has been used since the gassing of a spy in a dentist chair in Alfred Hitchcock's original The Man Who Knew Too Much. And some remember Martin's sado-comic "Be a Dentist" number from the musical version of Little Shop of Horrors.

Although it's ambitious, Novocaine suffers from a clumsy shifting of mood from comedy into violence. Perhaps the Coen Brothers can get away with these shifts (and often they don't). But Atkins, a first-time director, doesn't have the style yet to make the acting bridge these gaps in tempo and intention.

The plotting isn't tight, either, with unlikely spots patched together with lines like "You know what happens when you call the cops. Everything spins out of control." Novocaine could be called a cult movie, but it may be too spun out of control even for a cult. Despite the noteworthy cast, Atkins squanders this movie's potential for true oddity.

Novocaine (R; 95 min.), directed by David Atkins, written by Paul Felopulos and Atkins, photographed by Vilko Filac and starring Steve Martin, Laura Dern and Helena Bonham Carter, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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From the November 14-21, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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