Novocaine is the story of Frank Sangster (Steve Martin), a successful dentist who has everything but good sense. Frank has a thriving practice, a gorgeous house, and a leggy blond dental hygienist and fiancee named Jean Nobel (Laura Dern) who isn't above a quick make-out session once the patient is blissful with laughing gas. But alas, Frank is not immune to temptation, which sashays into his office one afternoon in the funky person of Susan Ivey (Helena Bonham Carter). Susan needs a root canal and a more traditional grasp of working hours. Moreover, she has a perhaps unhealthy affection for painkillers. But, hey, if she'd like a little Demerol, only a cruel dentist would deny her, say, five tablets. And what was that she was saying about an interest in having sex in a dentist's chair?
Frank seems never to have heard of the term "femme fatale." Either that or he has the self-protective instincts of a lemming. Yes, he's annoyed, if not properly suspicious, when Susan shows up 12 hours late for her oral surgery appointment. What's a.m. or p.m. when your lips are so red and your come-hither is so right now? So pretty soon he's got a smile of orgasmic memory spread across his face, a telltale pair of red panties dangling from his office furniture and a drug cabinet devoid of narcotics. He presumes when he suddenly gets a visit from an officious D.E.A. officer wanting a precise accounting for his missing inventory that things couldn't conceivably get worse. But he would be very wrong. For lying just ahead is an intimidating encounter with Susan's psychopathic brother Duane (Scott Caan), and from there charges of murder. Devil, thy name is woman.
A lot of Novocaine is laugh-out-loud funny. Frank is a one-man Rube Goldberg machine of cascading disaster. Always the wrong decision. From this bad choice, he careens wildly into the next, which is worse yet. In addition, just when you think this picture is going to settle for the conventional, it takes you some place pleasingly unexpected. Just as we start to settle into a murder charge which is complicated and mysterious enough, Kevin Bacon shows up as Lance Phelps, an actor doing research for a movie role as a detective. Frank is beside himself with anguish, and then he has to be grilled by an egomaniac who hasn't a clue what he's doing. In the hands of a less imaginative filmmaker, this lampoon aimed at the arrogance and self-centeredness of people in the movie business would have been dropped after a single scene, but Atkins eventually makes Lance pivotal to a plot twist. And the revelations, reversals and stratagems of the picture's closing quarter hour prove particularly gratifying.
Hindsight, however, is less kind to Novocaine. The perfect mystery is one the viewer can't unravel as he or she travels from beginning to end, but one that is entirely obvious when viewed from the end back toward the beginning. Examined from the closing credits backwards, Novocaine's flaws stand in high relief. The picture's entire plot requires that Frank will be smitten by Susan's readily available charms, and we remain unconvinced that he necessarily would be. Jean is attractive, devoted and willing. So why is it plain that Frank would stray? Furthermore, why would he turn hungry eyes toward Susan who looks as if she was just thrown out of the Sorority of Skanks for lowering their standards. Helena Bonham Carter is a lovely woman, but here she's been made up to look desperately in need of a bath. Even if we grant Frank his right to be aroused by someone who could pass for a cadaver, we don't follow his hiding Susan's perfidy when she alters his drug prescription and then loots his stash of painkillers.
But if we won't rank Novocaine on the honor roll with Body Heat, we will perhaps still recall it for its stage in Steve Martin's remarkable evolution as a movie actor. A silly, if hilarious, stand-up, Martin devoted most of his early movie career to a cash-in of broad and often forgettable comedies. But as he showed long ago in Pennies From Heaven and more recently in Grand Canyon and The Spanish Prisoner, Martin is an actor still willing, maybe even anxious, to stretch. I suspect he doesn't like to repeat himself, and that makes his choice of films consistently interesting. Novocaine is solidly in that tradition.