There is something about going to the dentist that gives you a queasy feeling inside, most likely because there's always a stranger rooting around in your mouth, asking you questions when they know for certain you can't talk at the moment. This uneasiness and attention to detail is skillfully captured in "Novocaine," a progressively wicked thriller from first-time director David Atkins.
Everything is going just right for Dr. Frank Sangster (Steve Martin), who has a successful dentistry practice and a cute hygienist girlfriend in Jean (Laura Dern), until the day a patient by the name of Susan Ivey (Helena Bonham Carter) takes a seat in his operating chair. She needs root canal surgery, but until then she uses her darkly beautiful looks and mysterious persona to convince him to prescribe Demerol, an off-limits drug in his profession, to ease her pain. Frank and Susan start an affair, despite his previous devotion to Jean, and the disappearance of the drugs in his medicine cabin, along with the appearance of his troubled brother, Harlan (Elias Koteas), begin a chain of crimes that leave Frank wanted for a brutal murder.
"Novocaine" sets its eccentric atmosphere in place from the very beginning with the people only being shown through their X-rays, accompanied by another outstanding music score from composer Danny Elfman. The film wastes no time getting to its story, with Frank finding himself uncontrollably drawn to a woman who seems to have the same fetish as he of having sex in the operating chair. He is a doctor who usually does things by the book, and Susan presents him with possibly his only chance in life to live on the edge. That edge, however, comes with a price, leaving Frank helplessly framed for murders he knows he hasn't committed.
While there are darkly comedic moments sprinkled throughout, director Atkins plays things fairly straight, giving Steve Martin (1999's "Bowfinger
") a rare dramatic role. As the put-upon Dr. Frank Sangster, Martin is superb at conveying the alternate attraction, confusion, and regret he feels about getting involved with Susan, the type of woman you can't say "no" to.
Coming off of her standout performance in 2001's otherwise mediocre "Planet of the Apes
," Helena Bonham Carter gives another star-making turn as Susan. She has a tricky part in that the viewer never really knows whether or not to trust her, and Carter turns Susan into an unforgettable presence that is a force to be reckoned with. Laura Dern (2001's "Focus
") goes purposefully over-the-top as Jean, and she does it well, especially as more is learned about her character as the film proceeds.
Appearing in supporting roles, Elias Koteas (2000's "Lost Souls
") plays Frank's slimy younger brother, Harlan; Scott Caan (2001's "American Outlaws
") is Susan's trouble-making brother, Duane; and Kevin Bacon (2000's "Hollow Man
") has some sparkling, unbilled scenes as a Hollywood actor following an investigator around as he researches his next movie role.
Written by David Atkins, "Novocaine" offers up many small surprises, and one really big one near the end. The movie, in fact, has everything one would hope for in a successful thriller, with an unpredictable whodunit mystery, a group of witty suspects, and some sharp writing that gives the characters a little extra flavoring. It doesn't take long before "Novocaine" has completely enraptured you in its ghoulishly off-kilter spell.
©2001 by Dustin Putman