Successful dentist Frank Sangster (Steve Martin) finds his life thrown into a frenzy by the appearance of a sexy, drug-avid new patient, Susan (Helena Bonham Carter). Soon, pills are missing from his office, Susan's crazy brother Duane (Scott Caan) makes further trouble, and Frank finds himself embroiled in a murder case, as well being accused of drug trafficking. His own dippy brother, Harlan (Elias Koteas) and fiance/dental hygienist, Jean (Laura Dern), may also know more than they're telling.
With Novocaine, writer-director David Atkins has fashioned an elaborate, exhausting whodunit that attacks the myth of the American Dream. In a device which was probably considered brilliantly clever in production meetings, he constantly breaks up the action with X-ray shots of dental patients that only lessen the fun and add to an overall feeling of alienation. The movie is filled with dark, edgy details and atmosphere, but ultimately becomes a very cold enterprise because you simply don't care about any of the characters. Danny Elfman's haven't-we-heard-these-before? musical themes add further ice.
Martin, in particular, one of the very first stand-up conveyors of the now-ubiquitous comedic irony, has always seemed a rather chill Everyman--only warming up when playing sweetly foolish characters, like in Carl Reiner's The Man With Two Brains. He's well-cast in the pristine dental profession (as he was in Little Shop of Horrors), perhaps too well-cast. When his perfectly ordered life begins to crumble, it's really difficult to feel any empathy for the plight of this blandest of yuppies. His inamoratas here also don't provide much in the way of warmly human respite. Dern works way too hard at her anal-retentive character conception, but even harder at her glamorous appearance, which, with its skintight designer wardrobe and lacquered coiffure, rather strains working-girl credibility. Bonham Carter is unconvincing as an American slacker-chick; Atkins' use of an incestuous plot element for her is particularly cheap, made even more so by her mechanically performed appeal for pity. Caan, as the obvious villain of the film, does the only fresh acting in it, being really sexy and scarily volatile.