Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Steve Martin, Laura Dern, Helena Bonham Carter, Elias Koteas, Scott Caan
Director:  David Atkins
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  Artisan
Features:  See Review
Length:  95 Minutes
Release Date:  April 23, 2002

“Frank, what the hell is going on?”

“Apparently, I’m being booked for murder.  Isn’t that funny?”

Film ***

Novocaine may be a drug to dull your senses, but the movie named after it is more of an experience akin to it wearing off.  Writer/director David Atkins has assembled a fine cast to weave an offbeat story of sex, drugs, and murder…all in a day’s work for one mild mannered dentist.

That dentist is Dr. Frank Sangster (Martin), a successful man with a thriving practice, a beautiful assistant and fiancée Jean Noble (Dern), and an uncomplicated life.  But as they say in every film noir, “she walked in, and I knew she was trouble.”  Susan Ivey (Carter) has every nuance of a femme fatale, which is why Frank should have obeyed his first instinct and stayed away from her.

Needing a root canal, she begs him for a prescription for Demerol, which is like the Grand Poobah of narcotics.  He reluctantly agrees to write out one for five tablets only.  A little flick of the pen and five becomes fifty, a fact that the pharmacist checks up on…but not exactly in a timely way.

Does Frank tell the truth?  No, he decides to cover his tracks.  But, as he observes, “A lie is like tooth decay.”  One small one starts an unraveling that Frank can’t begin to stop.  He shouldn’t see Susan again, but he can’t resist, especially when she entertains his secret desire to make love in a dentist’s chair!  Later, a stash of drugs disappears from his office and some kid ends up in a debilitating car accident carrying a bottle with Frank’s name on it.  Things are going from bad to worse.

Novocaine plays like a darkly comic version of Detour, where one man’s mistake leads to a barrage of events he can’t control nor stop.  I don’t want to give too many of the twists away, but it’s safe to say not everyone or everything is who or what it appears to be.  Ever notice how red paint kind of looks like blood?  Funny, isn’t it?  Then again…maybe not.

David Atkins takes the director’s chair for the first time with this film, and he clearly had a good time with his script and his actors.  His opening shot, a long technical tour-de-force all within the confines of an examination room, is priceless.  He seems to have a sense for both noir and comedy, though to be honest, the blending of both elements wasn’t always smooth…more like an under-mixed pudding that tastes good, but you can’t ignore the lumps.

Still, there are plenty of moments that are both intriguing and funny, and some just plain odd, such as an unlikely place to hide a pair of dentures (and an even more unlikely use for them).  But the script and action are well paced, and often unmistakably punctuated.  When Frank tries to flee from the cops, for example, there’s only one way it can end.  Badly.

Steve Martin is the right choice for this role.  Having abandoned his once famed “wild and crazy guy” persona, he’s spent the last decade as one of cinema’s best comic actors, and even better, a perfect kind of everyman for the audience to identify with.  That quality is what makes us like Frank, even when he should have known better.  Both Laura Dern and Helena Bonham Carter bring their comedic best, as well.  And I haven’t even touched upon the nice supporting roles offered by Elias Koteas and Scott Caan.

Best of all is the surprise appearance of a favorite star, completely unbilled, playing an actor following the cop investigating Frank as research for a role.  You’ll definitely get a laugh when you see who it is.

Overall, Novocaine is definitely a movie a step or two off the beaten path.  It’s sense of playful daring may not always gel, but there are more than a few moments of pure genius at work, and still plenty of fun to be had for the curious and adventurous.

Video ***1/2

This is a quality anamorphic offering from Artisan…though modest in set design and color schemes, the transfer is clean and sharp, with no visible blemishes and no evidence of compression.  Images are well rendered, and coloring is generally very good and well contained, with only a small amount of background softness here and there.

Audio ***

Though mostly driven by the dialogue, the 5.1 offering is a lively mix, with a few crowd scenes and musical cues opening up the front and rear stages nicely.  The .1 channel is sparingly but tastefully used for impact and more dynamic range here and there.  Crossovers are not extensive, but independent channel usage is clean and well-mixed.  As an added note, one of the tunes on the soundtrack is performed by the director’s own band!

Features ***

Not a bad package of extras, starting with a formidable commentary track by David Atkins, who is both informative and occasionally funny (kind of like his movie, actually!), and a pleasure to listen to.  The disc lacks an in-depth featurette, but tries to make up for it with two smaller ones, a brief 9 minute production reel and another on the art of forensic dentistry with a man who does it for a living.  There are 5 deleted scenes, a small collection of music cues from the film, two trailers and bonus ones for other Artisan offerings, production notes and talent files.

The drawback, though, is that these are the most difficult menu screens to navigate I’ve encountered in a while.  Though everything is laid out plainly and nicely, for some reason, getting the pointer to move is a hassle.  My player kept beeping that it was receiving the signal from my remote, but I had to press the same buttons over and over again to make a selection, and then press enter two or three times in a row to get the selection to activate.  The cursor is a little syringe with the liquid inside running down…a cute bit of animation, but possibly the cause of the grief.


In the end, Novocaine is modestly ambitious…it may have bitten off a little more than it can chew by attempting to make noir funny and real at the same time.  But it’s still an enjoyable experience by any stretch…quirky and interesting from start to finish, with more than a few touches of brilliance along the way.  It’s a good way to deaden the pain for an hour and a half.