Novocaine's A Shot of Fun Noir

There's nothing numbing about Novocaine, a smart and funny film that successfully combines film noir with satire. That's no small feat, given that noir gains power through style, while satire deflates through an excess of style. And to cap it off, co-writer and director David Atkins injects black comedy into the tale as Steve Martin's downwardly mobile dentist likens his moral decay to tooth decay.

Veteran comedian Steve Martin may seem as strange a pick for a film noir as the story's setting, the sanitized world of his character Frank Sangster. But his Everyman quality makes him a perfect patsy for Helena Bonham Carter's junkie femme fatale Susan. He senses her claim of pain is as real as the tooth fairy but he gives into his attraction and gives her prescription drugs.

Soon he's covering up her involvement in a drug theft at his clinic, trying to maintain a veneer of normalcy before the authorities and his girlfriend/business partner Jean, played to perky, pearly-white perfection by Laura Dern. Not even Susan's ferocious, drug-dealing brother Duane can make Frank steer clear of her. When Duane turns up dead at Frank's home, Frank becomes a wanted man as he tries to learn who set him up.

The root of all Frank's troubles is his desire for something more. And that's one of the film's few weak spots. Frank's own motivation for pulling out of his picture-perfect life doesn't quite convince and neither does Helena Bonham Carter as a femme fatale. She's too old to play Susan the minor, too British to be poor white junkie American trash, and about as sexy as cold fish and chips.

Laura Dern shines as the steady girlfriend pushed away by Frank even though she's just like him. When she reveals she wants more, it's a gripping reminder of the aching desire underneath the surface. Surprising and surprisingly good is Kevin Bacon's cameo as smirking, swaggering movie star Lance Phelps. When Lance declares that Frank couldn't have murdered Duane because the audience would never believe the obvious suspect, it's a moment that goes beyond satirizing self-involved Hollywood stars. Frank's reply that it's real is as fictive as Frank the character. Now Novocaine isn't the first film where self-referentiality changes the relationship between film and the passive, accepting viewer. But self-referentiality persists till the viewer can no longer trust what is seen, even in the final frames. And that's film noir.

So pop in for Novocaine. I promise it won't hurt a bit.

(November 25, 2001)

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