2001 / Director. David Atkins.
Review by Jarret Gahan.
Frank (Steve Martin) is a well to do guy, with a successful dentistry practice, his own home, flash car, an adoring girlfriend Jean (Laura Dern) and a suburban lifestyle that most would envy. However all that goes topsy-turvy the moment that Susan (Helen Bonham Carter) enters his surgery. Susan is the polar opposite of Frank’s girlfriend in every imaginable way, from her unkempt appearance to her devil may care attitude and the possibility she may very well be a junkie. A suspicion that soon is confirmed when she adjusts a prescription given to her by Frank from 5 to 50 doses of Demerol. Now this is where Frank, a seemingly moral upright kind of guy should report her to the authorities however this is the critical turning point for his character when he lets it slide in favour of a rendezvous with her the following morning at a scheduled root canal. It’s arguable initially whether he wanted to confront her personally about the misdemeanour or if he had secretly hoped for another encounter with this femme fatale. The latter becomes apparent once Susan fails to show for her appointment and Frank becomes infatuated. When the pair do meet again, things escalate fast and Frank’s world can never be the same.
Novocaine is at its core a thriller, taking elements of film noir blended with ever so slight screwball comedy to become a reasonably unique black comedy. Its film noir influence is not only present in plot of a law abiding citizen lured into a life of crime but right through to its storytelling techniques, be its non-conventional visual style with some incredible cinematography, its use of Frank’s narration throughout and many a common motif like Susan’s chainlike smoking. The characters themselves are possibly the best representation of taking a classic genre’s archetypes and modernising them, for example you have:
1) Frank – The flawed Hero
2) Susan & Jean – Femme Fatales
3) Lance - Hardboiled Detective
4) Duane - Jealous Husband
To be clear Duane (Scott Caan) isn't exactly a jealous husband, more the jealous brother of Susan though he does have an implied incestuous relationship with her hence the jealousy when she takes up with Frank. On that note Lance played by an uncredited Kevin Bacon, isn't exactly a hardboiled detective, he’s an actor shadowing Detective Lunt (Keith David) however he’s researching a part and subsequently partially method acting the role of a hardboiled detective. David Atkins’ screenplay is clever, toeing the line between humour and mystery, with rich developed characters, snappy dialogue and enough twists that it’ll keep you guessing as to which direction the film will turn next. All of the above is complemented by the beautiful title Novocaine, metaphoric in that Frank’s life had been numb until he met Susan and soon after that encounter the novocaine begins to wear off, allowing him to take control of his life.
Curiously this is Atkins’ sole feature-film directing credit, being such an impressive debut it’s a surprise that he hasn't gone to a successful career in the industry or at the very least directed another feature. That said Novocaine bodes well as both a debut and a swan song, a film that is rarely spoken of and hopefully in the years to come will outgrow its underrated status, to become widely remembered and worthy of study.