In Novocaine, your basic, everyday madcap oral-hygiene office noir, Steve Martin plays a dentist who works in a clinic lavish enough to include a state-of-the-art video mouth-monitor. Martin has donned dentist’s whites once before (in Little Shop of Horrors), but here, the moment you see him bounding around the examination room, avidly shoving a drill into some poor shnook’s maw, he’s about as convincing as a guy with a stethoscope in a ’70s porn film. Trying to be a straight-faced actor, Steve Martin is like a human being in quotation marks. (He makes William H. Macy look non-ironic.) In Novocaine, when he jokes with his leggy hygienist fiancée (Laura Dern) about having sex in the dentist’s chair, and then proceeds to do just that with a bruised vamp (Helena Bonham Carter) who’s in dire need of a root canal, it’s hard to know whether to laugh, to pop your eyes in disbelief, or to pray for a blast of nitrous oxide. There are many things wrong with Novocaine, but the film’s most gnawing pain is its clodhopper farfetchedness.
Bonham Carter, adorable in grunge pigtails, is a drug addict who seduces Martin for one reason only: to get at his clinic’s stash of liquid narcotics. There’s no erotic tension between these two; their scenes are numb from the waist down. The writer-director, David Atkins, strings Novocaine with noir clichés and then tries to give them a wobbly spin by merging them with dental paraphernalia. The result, which is so low-budget cruddy we can’t even tell if we’re supposed to giggle at the garish effects (a scissor stabbed into someone’s hand looks like it came out of a Herschell Gordon Lewis gorefest), just domesticates the danger out of every situation. Anyone who’s ever been remotely queasy about getting a tooth filled may want to sneak out before the climax, in which Martin, armed with pliers, devises the achiest solution possible for wriggling out of the law’s clutches. It hardly looks worth the effort. C-