If the ‘40s origins of film noir were a reaction to the rose-colored America of World War II, then how should we view our ongoing mini-era of Noir Oblique? “Mulholland Dr.,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and now “Novocaine"--from first-time director (“Arizona Dream” writer) David Atkins--are films that don’t just take a dark view of the soul, they suggest a template-shifting unreliability.
All things considered, it’s a tough thing to blame on the Taliban. But there’s a genuine cosmic unease in these recent movies, as well as--although it’s been declared dead--irony.
“Novocaine” stars Steve Martin doing the kind of thing he did so well in David Mamet’s “The Spanish Prisoner,” playing straight, subtly controlled and, in this case, the kind of character who might have been the stooge in an early Robert Aldrich, or even Billy Wilder, film. Frank Sangster, a button-down dentist with a thriving, heavily staffed practice in what could be Noirland (Los Angeles, but actually Chicago) is set to marry his overachieving girlfriend (Laura Dern). He’s seduced into his dentist’s chair by the scheming, gamine Susan Ivey (Helena Bonham Carter), who’s having an incestuous relationship with her psychopathic brother Duane (a terrific Scott Caan) and is out to loot Frank’s supply of cocaine hydrochloride.
Atkins, whose “Arizona Dream” became a film by Emir Kusturica, shows he’s well-versed in the noirish arts (or maybe just Wilder). A la Fred MacMurray in “Double Indemnity,” Frank narrates (partly, at least) his own tale of self-destruction. “Lying is like tooth decay,” he says. It gets behind and eats away at everything healthy--in Frank’s case his relationship with girlfriend Jean, his practice, his social standing and, ultimately, his life.
The thing is, even as Atkins is transposing the usual precedents--ordinarily, the high-haired, kickboxing Jean would be the malevolent femme fatale; Susan would be the heroine-in-waiting; Frank’s corrupted brother Harlan (Elias Koteas), or even Duane, would be the protagonist--he’s doing a double reverse on our expectations.
Martin is marvelous; through sheer charisma, he takes over certain scenes as if no one else is there. Carter, who may be wearing prosthetic choppers (a joke, like the X-rays of masticating skeletons that punctuate the movie), makes a convincing American derelict. But Atkins gets a bit cute for his own good. An appearance by Kevin Bacon, as an actor doing research who’s allowed to question Frank at a crime scene, is just ludicrous (Bacon’s fine, the routine is useless). And allowing Frank to get caught up in a virtually slapstick run from the cops deflates the tension, however postmodern, that Atkins has built up elsewhere.
Surely, “Novocaine” is an impressive directorial debut, but you wish Atkins had not made his movie’s gradual descent seem as inevitable as Frank’s.
MPAA rating: R for violence, sexuality, language and drug content.
Steve Martin...Frank Sangster
Helena Bonham Carter...Susan
Laura Dern...Jean Noble
Elias Koteas...Harlan Sangster
Artisan Entertainment presents a Paul Mones/Daniel M. Rosenberg production, released by Artisan. Director David Atkins. Producers Paul Mones, Daniel M. Rosenberg. Executive producer Michele Weisler. Screenplay by David Atkins, story by Paul Felopulos and Atkins. Cinematographer Vilko Filac. Editor Melody London. Costume designer Denise Wingate. Music score Steve Bartek. Music theme Danny Elfman. Production designer Sharon Seymour. Art director Craig Jackson. Set decorator Amelia Hochberg. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
In limited release.