Dark comedy might be the most difficult genre to perfect, as Steve Martin's "Novocaine" proves. Despite solid performances, a clever plot and a quirky style, first-time director David Atkins can't get the mix of light and dark right; and the whole macabre piece comes across as uneven.
Martin is convincing as reputable, mild-mannered dentist Frank Sangster, whose successful world is turned upside down following a tryst with sexy patient Susan Ivy (Helena Bonham-Carter). He cheats on his dental hygienist girlfriend, Jean (Laura Dern), but soon finds that the motives of temptress Susan are deeper than the root canal she came in for.
Susan steals drugs from the dentist's office, and Frank dodges the authorities both to protect Susan and keep his affair secret from Jean. Reluctant to blame Susan, whom he still has a crush on, Frank instead confronts Susan's brother, Duane (Scott Caan), the mastermind of the theft. In a clever twist, Duane, who wanted to sell the drugs, turns up dead, and the police turn up at the dentist's door looking for answers.
With Frank on the run and suspecting his wayward brother Harlan (Elias Koteas) of trying to frame him, the film turns more serious than expected, with the comedic elements hidden among the ensuing police chases and murders. Atkins does manage to elicit a few laughs, thanks to Martin's offbeat style. And his bizarre inclusion of Kevin Bacon as an actor shadowing the police to get background material for his next movie is one of the film's best elements.
Atkins' debut is flawed, though, because his movie doesn't know what it wants to be. Its plot is darkly dramatic, yet its clever dialogue and performances often don't gel with the action. It's not the mood swings of the characters but of the film that leave one unaffected, despite a neatly packaged ending. Ultimately, "Novocaine" is an intelligent idea with a smart style that gets lost inside a much too serious crime drama.