Novocaine Review

The Film
If I were being polite then I would say that Steve Martin has had a “varied” career. For every Man with two Brains there is an Out Of Towners and for every L.A. Story there is a Father of the Bride 2. Personally I am a fan of his earlier career and I haven’t seen much since 1991 (L.A. Story) that has excited me as much as Man with Two Brains, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or indeed All of Me. Of course there are pleasant surprises like Bowfinger (good if not top form) and Spanish Prisoner. Call me an optimist but I feel Novocaine could be added to this list.

I have to say that I overlooked this one on its initial release, as did many others given the poor box office return ($2 million and it cost $6 million to make!). However the lack of exposure/box office is unsurprising given the low budget nature of the film, the unknown director and the less than stellar cast. Indeed Atkins was only given a small budget and 30 days to shoot the film. I finally stumbled across it via a second hand purchase and having watched it I felt it deserved a wider audience, as most will avoid it due to its lukewarm reception.

The film revolves around a dentist, Frank Sangster (Martin) who runs a successful dental practice and has the perfect fiancée, Jean (Laura Dern), to go with it. Unfortunately his practice and relationship are put in danger by his obsession with a drug-addicted patient, Susan Ivey (Helena Bonham-Carter). She is of course stealing drugs from the practice to feed her habit and to sell before she moves onto another town. The drug enforcement agency smells a whiff of corruption and comes down on Sangster like the proverbial ton of bricks much to Jean’s surprise. The plot is further complicated by the appearance of two brothers. One is Frank’s brother, Harlan (Elias Koteas) and the other is Susan’s brother, Duane (Scott Caan). The plot inevitably leads from one lie to another until the inevitable happens. The resulting mix of dark humour (I hesitate to use the word comedy) and twists/turns is fascinating and the film reaches a suitably macabre conclusion.

The plot is loaded with twists to keep the viewer interested (and guessing) without confusing completely. The dark humour is very subtle and indeed some argue that there is none at all (incorrectly I might add). I think most of the humour is missed because it isn’t obviously signposted for the audience… the concepts and scenes are faintly amusing or absurd in a dark way rather than being obviously overstated. The good news is that all of the clues are flagged up throughout the film so you have no excuses for not guessing the ending; one thing I hate is movies that present you with new information which explains the ending as it doesn’t give you a fair chance to guess whodunit.

The performances are rock solid throughout with only the odd minor irritation. Steve Martin is superbly understated in the part of Frank and he keeps his manic comic side almost completely under control. The descent from a man who controls everything to a man that has no control whatsoever is handled very well and subtly. Laura Dern is also great as Jean; her perfection is communicated perfectly and in some cases worryingly. Helena Bonham-Carter is also accomplished as the junkie with a heart of gold (cliché I know) and her lack-lustre performance in Planet of the Apes is forgiven here. The two respective brothers are less impressive, Scott Caan gives a very one note performance as Duane whereas Elias Koteas seems to be a little too subdued. Finally I must mention the small part played by Kevin Bacon. He only has a couple of tiny scenes but he shines beautifully in a hilarious part as a method actor.

My only problem with the film is its gimmicky direction. The use of dental X-rays as fades and wipes is amusing at first but it soon becomes tiresome and inevitably dull. Also the use of odd blurry camera movements at times seems to have no purpose and only serves to say, “hey look at my fancy camera trickery”. There is already one David Fincher in Hollywood and we certainly don’t need two.

My final analysis is a difficult one. This film is not going to appeal to everyone by any stretch (The reviews prove that). Also I am not convinced that it will hold up to multiple viewings. If you like your humour dark and subtle or if you like your mysteries twisty and solvable then give this a try. I thoroughly enjoyed it, others may want to rent before they buy. Certainly don’t buy this if you are after a laugh a minute romp as you will only be disappointed.

The Disc
Given its dismal failure at the box office I wouldn’t have been surprised if Artisan had simply slipped this out extras free. However there are more than a few surprises lurking on this disc. The case and artwork are nothing spectacular but the animated menus use an interesting dental chair/x-ray theme, which is a nice touch. The film itself has only 15 chapter stops

As I have stated before modern films tend to have pretty good transfers making this section a difficult one to write. The picture is framed correctly at 1.85:1 anamorphic. The print is clean with little or no damage (as you’d expect). The transfer is accomplished but it won’t make you jump out of your seat. The picture is fairly sharp with minimal artefacting. The colours seem to vary between a slightly washed out look in the dull Dentists office whereas they are vibrant and solid in the more outlandish scenes (very appropriate). The black level always seems to be solid and the shadow detail and contrast are excellent in the darker scenes. My only slight criticism is an occasional softness to the picture but this is minor.

The soundtracks provided here are a 5.1 track and a DD2.0 track. The 5.1 track is unexciting but appropriate for the most part. The subwoofer never gets a real workout and the rears are used sparingly. Given the dialogue-based nature of the film this is not surprising. However the track is clean and the dialogue is always clear. The DD2.0 mix is of similar clarity whilst it naturally lacks some of the atmospherics provided by the 5.1 track.

The extras available here are a surprise bonus given my expectations; whilst they may not be comprehensive they are certainly better than some titles I could mention.

First of all we have a very dull promo featurette called “Getting the Shot”. This is a 9-minute making-of piece shot at the time of production. As usual with these pieces this is pure fluff and the participants spend most of the time patting each other on the back. I will pick out Laura Dern here as during her piece she was seriously in danger of disappearing up her own orifice.

The second featurette is slightly better and is called “Bitten”. This 9-minute section is a series of interview sound bites with forensic dentists. They discuss such events as identifying Hitler from dental records as well as convicting Ted Bundy and other serial killers using forensic dentistry. They also comment on the accuracy of the film although I notice they do not comment on one aspect that I thought sounded a little dubious…

Next we have a total of five deleted scenes running for 7-minutes. The majority of these are cut for obvious reasons but two of these scenes will raise a smile and at least one shows Steve Martin doing what he does (did) best.

The next extra is a director’s commentary. Given the content of the making-of and the fact he was a first time director my hopes weren’t high. However my fears were quickly alleviated. Atkins is an intelligent commentator who rarely pauses for breath. His ruminations cover his problems with the production and budget constrictions. He also has a fair few anecdotes to impart. I doubt you would listen to it more than once but it is definitely worth looking at.

Next up are six excerpts from the soundtrack. This is a fairly obvious tactic to get you to buy the soundtrack. The idea isn’t awful as it does give you a chance to listen to the soundtrack out of context and decide if it holds up outside of the film (it doesn’t).

A couple of trailers follow this and they seem to prove that the studio did not know how to market this film. The first goes for a real comic angle and I can see why people were disappointed if they came to see the film expecting what they saw in the trailer. The second is more in keeping with the film and is easily the better of the two. There are also 5 promo trailers for other Artisan titles.

Finally there are 7 pages of production notes (not terribly exciting) and cast & crew biographies which whilst fairly fluffy also have decent filmographies.

Overall the extras aren’t earth shattering in quantity or quality they are certainly welcome and (mostly) interesting.

I’m afraid it’s one of those review that seems to be sitting on the fence waiting for you to decide. I thought the film was great and certainly better than 90% of Martin’s output since ’91 however others may find it falls badly between two stools. The disc is a decent package and well worth a look. The picture is more than adequate as is the sound whilst the extras are nice to have if not outstanding. Definitely one to rent and maybe buy…

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