Eight years ago David Atkins wrote one of the most bizarre and original screenplays of the 90s, Arizona Dream — a work that managed to mix Eskimos, used cars, accordion playing, turtles, stand-up comedy, fantasy, Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway, Jerry Lewis, and Lili Taylor into a strangely cohesive and compelling whole. Now, Atkins appears on the scene with Novocaine, which he wrote and directed, and while it’s not quite as rich in oddity as Arizona Dream, it’s in the same key and it’s a directorial debut worth noting. The film opens with a striking and disturbing series of x-ray’s of the human mouth, over which the credits — backed by an especially good Danny Elfman theme (Oingo Boingo guitarist and orchestrator Steve Bartek provided the rest of the film’s score) — play. This aptly sets the tone for what’s to come, as does our introduction to Frank Sangster (Steve Martin), a very proper, very organized dentist with a seemingly perfect life – a successful practice, respect, and an even more proper and organized girlfriend, Jean (Laura Dern). Here is a man whose credo can be summed up by his notion that the worst thing a man can lose isn’t his life or his soul or his honor, but his teeth. But under this seemingly perfect life there are undercurrents of something else, not the least of which is Frank’s heavy-drinking, heavy-doping, utterly shiftless brother, Harlan (Elias Koteas). This, however, isn’t the only thing that hints of something else beneath the surface, as becomes obvious when Susan Ivy (Helena Bonham Carter) wanders into his office, ostensibly with a toothache. Bedraggled, sporting a bruise on her left cheek (interestingly, as Frank spirals into her world, he ends up battered in exactly the same spot), badly applied make-up, and with a transparent line of chatter that’s nothing more than a pretense to score some drugs, Susan is nonetheless strangely appealing to Frank. She is everything that is foreign to his well-ordered life — and when she asks him, “Have you ever done it in the chair?” it’s obvious that he’s hooked, especially since this is something the proper Jean refuses to even contemplate (“I’m not here to fulfill your fantasies”). In no time, Frank finds himself telling lie after lie, facing narcotics charges, and finally becoming a hunted murder suspect. And the more hopeless and dire his situation becomes, the more we realize that Frank actually welcomes the unraveling of the fabric of his “perfect” life. Viciously comic, unbelievably quirky (the very image of a singular stuffed bunny — “What’s wrong with that rabbit’s mouth?” asks Susan — in Jean’s bedroom is stranger and more unsettling than ought to be possible), Novocaine is also cleverer than a firkin full of simians. Atkins has skillfully mixed thrills and comedy in an almost seamless manner that has put off more than a few critics, who object to the way the movie constantly shifts gears. And it’s true that it’s not every day you see a film where a tense scene with the hero trying to evade the law ends with a pratfall that drops him right into their hands. But that’s the beauty of Novocaine — and it should come as no great surprise to anyone familiar with the way in which Atkins mixed very emotional, very serious elements with absurdly comedic ones in Arizona Dream. Moreover, the film’s plot is constantly ingenious and impossibly convoluted, and yet one that makes perfect sense when everything is known. Atkins’ direction is equally inventive and stylish, and he has obtained performances from Martin, Bonham Carter (she really owns this film), and Dern that are better than any I have seen them previously give. The actual ending is a little too facile — obviously inspired by the fantasy ending of Arizona Dream, but here presented as reality. Still, the ending is somehow satisfying. It’s by no means a perfect film, but it works more often than it doesn’t and offers more adventurous moviegoers a richly dark comedy that’s decidedly off the beaten path.
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