Novocaine (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)


Novocaine is both a noir crime mystery and a comedy, the cinematic equivalent of co-status as breath and candy mints, so let me review it twice.

Movie #1, Novocaine the noir mystery, is a pathetic effort.

There are four ways to create surprise at the end of a mystery film:

1. If you are a genius, like Mamet or Hitchcock, you can get away with the fact that the surprise is that there is no surprise. Everything is simple and innocent, and has been misinterpreted, either by the other characters in the film, or by the audience, because they were expecting something else. Of course, if you do this, you better have interesting characters and situations, not to mention witty dialogue, or you have no movie.

2. If you write a good, solid formula mystery, you have a surprise, but you see to it that the clues were right there in front of the audience, and some members of the audience could have solved it if they were good enough detectives. In Body Double, you can solve the mystery if you notice the behavior of the family dog, for example.

3. If the scriptwriter is somewhat clueless or just doesn't care, he simply creates a surprise out of left field, using information not made available to the audience, or in the worst case, elements that are not even in the plot until the explanation stage. This is not very tidy but, let's face it, it's been around since the classical tragedies, and the specific conventions of those classical stage productions have lent us the expression "deus ex machina". God no longer comes down from the heavens on his hand-cranked throne to bail the protagonist out of his inescapable plight, but the deus ex machine will always be with us. If patriotism is the last resort of the political scoundrel, "deus ex machina" is the last resort of the artistic scoundrel.

4. If the scriptwriter is completely clueless, and has no idea how to get out of the plot, he creates a surprise from something that simply is not possible. Well, of course you never thought that the explanation was that the world started spinning in the reverse direction - it's pretty goddamned surprising, all right, but not possible. Even if Big Sup could reverse the spinning of the world, it wouldn't reverse time, now, would it?

I guess I don't really care if they do that in a comic book movie. When I watch one of those, I have a covenant with the filmmaker in which I have agreed to suspend my disbelief. After all, I'm watching a story about a guy who can fly, so the ground rules indicate that natural law is suspended and anything is possible.

But it sure ticks me off when they do it in a mystery. I'm getting involved, just as they want me to, trying to figure out all out, drawing on what is known and what is possible. When they use something that isn't known, I'm pretty steamed, but when they use something that isn't possible, I just pitch a fit.

Novocaine is, regrettably, a type 4 mystery.


Helena Bonham Carter shows her breasts in a sex scene with Steve Martin

A junkie shows up and gets the world's straightest dentist (Steve Martin) to prescribe some Demerol. First time in his life he ever broke the rules. He writes a scrip for 5 pills. She changes it to 50. He doesn't report it, so he's now on a rule-breaking spree, by his standards. When the junkie shows up again, she seduces him to shut off his anger, and the next morning his entire supply of narcotics is missing. But now he's obsessed with her, and he lies to the DEA. His problems escalate until he is implicated for murder.

It turns out that Martin was set up from the beginning by his girlfriend and his brother. The found the junkie, helped in the narcotics theft, etc.

Now - why can't that be the explanation? Simple - they set him up in a plan which would require him to do things that they had no reason to expect him to do. Martin was her fiance. She knew very well that he would never break any rules. Why would she formulate a plan that required him to behave in a way that was contrary to his nature? Oh, he did do it. We all do at some time in our life. But the point is not that he couldn't possibly do it, but that she couldn't possible have expected him to do it.

Whether you are writing a film noir or even planning something in real life, you cannot formulate a plan based on the expectation of completely uncharacteristic behavior. You can't write a political thriller that works because LBJ behaves nobly and humbly at the very moment you need him to. You can't base your career plan on the expectation that your maidenly, conservative lesbian boss will really appreciate your feeling her up in the cafeteria. You can't write a robbery plan, either in fiction or reality, in which the crime will work only if Dan Quayle solves Fermat's last theorem. Sorry, pard. No go. In the case of this film, they based their entire plan on something that had a 99.999999999% likelihood of failure, and they knew that in advance.

You can, of course, have people behave in a way that is atypical for them. That's how noir characters always get in trouble. But you cannot have other people concoct an elaborate plan which requires that to happen, even though they have no reason to expect it.

The scriptwriter simply made that the explanation to provide a convenient surprise revelation. Because that wasn't actually a possible explanation, it was certainly surprising!

I guess you'd have to say this might be one of the worst five mysteries ever written even without some of the other details, but there was even more annoying stuff.

For example, Martin's estranged brother shows up exactly at the time the troubles begin, and he knows many details of incidents that happened when he was not present. Duh! Gee, Steve, do you think he might be finding out from someone who was there? Well, who was there besides you? Do you think your brother's arrival could be related to your problems?

Yet Martin never suspects these things. Lord almighty, this script is bad.

Movie #2, Novocaine the comedy, is so-so.

No big laughs, some jokes don't work, but there are some chuckles now and then. Steve Martin can be a genius on the Woody Allen level when he writes, and/or when he acts in his own material. He's not as good in this type of project, when he does other people's stuff, but he's still OK.

If you think Helena Bonham Carter is an excellent actress, as I did before this movie, then I suggest you skip this movie and keep your mental image of her intact. She is not very funny here, except that she is hilariously incapable of an American accent and syntax. My favorite - "we hovn't much toyme!" - sure, Helena we all talk like that here, especially the junkies.

DVD info from Amazon

  • Commentary by director David Atkins

  • Featurette: "The Making of Novocaine"

  • deleted scenes

  • Special documentary: "Bitten"

  • Soundtrack and score

  • Widescreen anamorphic format, 1.85;1

In case you aren't a native speaker and don't understand my point, there were three things un-American in just those four words:

1. we don't pronounce haven't "hovn't". It's natural over there in the Yukay, of course, because your vowels sound different, but this would be affected in American speech, even for William F Buckley.

2. we don't pronounce time "toyme", except in some highly distinctive regional accents, like in working-class Brooklyn.

3. very few Americans would use the syntax "we haven't much time" in spoken American English, and I can't think of any instance where this would be an appropriate syntax in a lower-class bimbo-junkie dialect. Americans would say something like "wur runnin' outta time".  Even highly educated Americans who are conscious of their speech would say something like "we don't have much time", not "we haven't much time". Although educated Americans might use the latter phrase in writing, speaking such a phrase is characteristically British syntax.

Tuna's Thoughts

Novocaine (2001) isn't as bad as Scoopy indicated, it is abysmal. Scoop found some humorous moments, but thought the thriller/mystery angle was botched badly. I didn't even find one smile here. I am a staunch Steve Martin fan, whether he is playing Steve Martin (The Jerk, Mixed Nuts, LA Story), or a real character (Roxanne, Plains, Trains and Automobiles, Parenthood), but I suggest he borrow a common plot element from bad thrillers, and claim that his evil twin was in this film, not him. The film never had a chance as a comedy. Going to the dentist is neither fun nor funny. I was prepared to believe that Helena Bonham Carter talked him into giving her a scrip for Percodan, but not that he didn't turn her in after the druggist told him she had upped the prescription to 50 pills.

The only positive in this film is Carter's breast exposure. Scoopy said D as a mystery, C as a comedy, and I say D for both. It is technically ok, but has no dramatic or comedic appeal at all.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two and a half stars. Ebert 3/4, Berardinelli 2.5/4, Apollo 71/100

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it  6.6/10, Apollo voters 49/100
  • with their dollars: a BOMB $2 million domestic gross.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C as a comedy, an E as a mystery, despite the relatively high scores from Ebert and IMDb voters.  (Tuna D, D)

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