Is It Safe?
Pairing up Steve Martin and Helena Bonham Carter might seem a bit of an odd move to those who haven’t given the matter much thought. Ex-standup comedian Martin, after all, made a career over the past decade in the role of upper-middle-class suburbanite, whereas the U.K.-born Bonham Carter’s U.S. success has come in recent years from portraying the disaffected.
Whether playing the Marxist, liberal-humanist primate in Planet of the Apes or the chain-smoking career neurotic in Fight Club, the post-Merchant and Ivory Bonham Carter has seemingly preferred to peer in at yuppie and upper-crust society from the outside. Martin, on the other hand—in films like The Out-of-Towners, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Parenthood, and Grand Canyon—seems most at home in parables of outside forces that threaten and trouble the middle class.
Steve Martin, Helena Bonham Carter, Laura Dern, Scott Caan
(Numb Gums' Productions Inc.)
US theatrical: 16 Nov 2001 (Limited release)
Think of the Clarks’ epic suffering in New York City in the Out of Towners or Neal Page’s similarly random misfortunes in the motels and open highways of the rural Midwest in Planes, Trains. Both Clark and Page must retreat to their suburban homes to give these movies their happily-ever-after endings. These movies resolve the fear that rogue social elements—the working classes, civil servants, eccentric salesmen without fixed addresses, airplane hijackers—might bring chaos to the hermetic white-collar world. Yet this disruption is precisely what’s celebrated in Fight Club and Planet of the Apes, or at least in the roles Bonham Carter plays in these films.
Both Bonham Carter and Martin partly reprise, partly expound on these previous roles in first time director David Atkins’ Novocaine. The contrast in their typecasts might establish certain expectations that one or the other performer will break out of previously established patterns. But Novocaine thwarts these expectations, largely because of Atkins’ occasionally scattered, often inspired, and always genre-bending direction.
Atkins’ most conspicuous debt is to Robert Altman’s Dr. T and the Women, from which he borrows Novocaine’s medical-professional-besieged-by-female-sexuality motif (as well as the earlier movie’s Laura Dern, who plays such an identical character that she seems to have simply stayed put and allowed respective film crews to break down and set up around her). Atkins’ field of influences is much broader than Altman, though. As Frank, the movie’s imperiled dentist on the lam, Steve Martin’s film noir voiceover nods at Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard. Like the protagonists in many of Wilder’s films (particularly Double Indemnity), Frank finds himself in a nightmare life as a fugitive after succumbing to a momentary temptation. But because the movie’s relationship to noir conventions about paranoia is fairly uneasy, its atmosphere becomes more surreal—more like a David Lynch or David Cronenberg project—as the movie unfolds.
The movie is most noir in its first two reels, as Dr. Frank Sangster (Martin) falls into the thrall of femme fatale Susan Ivy (Bonham Carter). Masquerading as a patient in need of a root canal, Susan flirts with Frank until he writes her a prescription for Demerol, then seduces him and subsequently steals the liquid cocaine he uses (legally, we’re to believe) as an anesthetic. After this happens, Frank starts lying repeatedly to his fiancee, Jean (Laura Dern), first to conceal his unfaithfulness and later to disguise his culpability as he runs further and further afoul of the law.
His troubles intensify when the corpse of Susan’s sexually abusive brother (Scott Caan) turns up in Frank’s home and, framed for the crime, Frank finds himself a fugitive from the law. In spite of the complexity of the events that befall him, Frank continually refers to his marital secrecy in voiceover as he tries to come to grips with his increasingly dire situation. “Lying is a lot like tooth decay,” he declares at one point. “One small lie, and everything unravels from there.”
This observation serves a purpose similar to the doorman’s warning in Alice in Wonderland, grounding the rest of the movie to an extent, but not quite accounting for the all the glorious weirdness that follows. On one level, what ensues after Frank’s first fatal lie is mere evidence in a Faustian drama about the importance of telling the truth. After the body’s discovery, however, Frank is repeatedly watched and investigated, and the movie ends up being much stranger than the story of a simple, ordered universe where lies bring swift, unambiguous justice. First, Jean dogs him with seemingly innocent questions; her questions are followed up by the curiosities of a DEA agent, a detective, a forensics investigator, and even Kevin Bacon, who makes a cameo as Lance Phelps, a Hollywood star hanging around a police station to study for an upcoming part.
These characters are simultaneously disarming and imposing, as good interrogators should be. Although the DEA agent shows up not in a dark suit but a goofy argyle sweater, for instance, he still makes it quite clear that he has the power to ruin Frank’s career and take away his freedom. There seems more to Phelps than meets the eye as well. Tagging along with the investigator on Frank’s case, Phelps questions Frank viciously, but retreats at once when Frank protests, insisting he is just practicing his role.
Is Phelps on the level, a mere observer, or is he a covert participant in Frank’s interrogation? Novocaine‘s most, shall we say pointed, collapse of these various categories is the telescoping camera designed to aid Frank in his practice by enabling him to see inside his patients’ mouths. Given the archetypal anxiety dentists provoke—Susan initially displays this anxiety when she comes into Frank’s office for a root canal, although later on her fear is revealed to be a put-on to manipulate Frank into doing her bidding—this implement seems alternately like a bizarre torture device and a kinky sex aid. Either way, it represents an alliance of penetration and surveillance and gives the act of looking a literally intrusive force.
The telescoping camera is only a single instance of the movie’s pervasive, Orwellian suspicion of image-gathering instruments. After Frank becomes a fugitive, a closed circuit camera feed, for instance, serves as an establishing shot for his entrance into a bar. This imagery is even more pervasive in the movie’s extra-narrative apparatus: the bar that wipes from scene to scene is a tinted x-ray that scans the screen like the bulb of a xerox machine. And yet for all this postmodern funhouse symbolism, Novocaine‘s biggest concern still seems to be with the act of lying, and Frank is far from the only guilty party. Amid Susan’s prevarications and the deceptions of all the agents of the law who pursue Frank, the lies come fast and furious in Novocaine, leading one to suppose that perhaps Frank’s—and, by extension, the film’s—descent into the progressively more bizarre is not a result of Frank’s single, unremarkable lie, but his overarching guilt.
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