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Moral decay

Novocaine maintains a black comedy poker face

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Steve Martin plays Frank Sangster, D.D.S., in the darkly comic Novocaine, giving a buttoned-up performance that's the polar opposite of his manic, Elvis-esque dentist in The Little Shop of Horrors. In that film, Martin exulted in yanking teeth, but in Novocaine, Sangster quietly appreciates his healthy practice and his relationship with a hygienist (Laura Dern).

But Sangster gets drawn into infidelity, drug abuse and murder when he becomes obsessed with a kinky patient (Helena Bonham Carter), who's interested in Sangster's, uh, drill only as a means of getting prescriptions for pain killers. In Novocaine's funniest scenes, Sangster, who becomes a criminal suspect, gets grilled by a movie star researching a cop role (I won't reveal the actor in the cameo).

Mostly, though, the film maintains a poker face in keeping with the cool detachment that suited Martin's change-of-pace role in The Spanish Prisoner. Sangster is neither a smock-wearing sadist nor a sinister man of mystery, but a flawed hero who should evoke some sympathy -- despite his transgressions, he's more victim than victimizer. But Sangster never seems particularly desperate, even when he's being unfairly hunted by the police, and Martin's reserve keeps us from rooting for the role. Novocaine's most effective player is Carter, who's evolved from part of the Merchant/Ivory stable to a zesty portrayer of American skanks.

Novocaine starts with an unusual setting and provides intriguing details about the regulation of medical narcotics. The opening credits show X-rays of living people doing mundane activities, indicating how we're all skeletons under the skin. But it constructs weak bids for suspense; for instance, someone paints a room red for no other reason than giving the audience a bloody fake-out. Dialogue that equates dental decay with moral rot sound too neat, while the tooth-related twists that cap off the story are, it must be said, hard to swallow.

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