Nov 21, 2001 at 12:00 am

Just look at the times when Steve Martin plays a dentist to see this multifaceted performer’s two primary screen personas: the manic troublemaker and the eerily calm plotter. In the musical Little Shop of Horrors (1986), the startlingly brunette Martin embodies every dental patient’s nightmare as a sadistic tooth-puller who delights in inflicting pain. This is Martin’s wild and crazy comedy tinged with cruelty to give it that extra bite.

In Novocaine, good-guy Steve Martin is the quintessential patsy, a man stifled by the perfect life he’s created, who then strays off his carefully marked path and falls into a rabbit hole of murder and mayhem. As Dr. Frank Sangster, Martin is blandness personified, the kind of dentist who’s efficient, reassuring, detail-oriented and, most of all, careful. That is, he tells the audience in voiceover, until Susan Ivy (Helena Bonham Carter) shows up in his chair (and subsequently fulfills the good doctor’s cavity-filling fantasies).

What comes after this meeting is utterly predictable, yet another case of a duplicitous femme fatale and an elaborate plot to make an innocent man take the blame for crimes he didn’t commit. Novocaine is only distinguishable from its late-night cable brethren by the dental references woven through the script (lies rot like tooth decay) and the great cast supporting Martin, who manages to simultaneously project intelligence and stupidity.

Bonham Carter is surprisingly good as a skanky waif and pixie seductress, and as her blustering, violent brother, Scott Caan projects a sizable portion of his father’s onscreen menace. But the real revelation is Laura Dern as Sangster’s fiancee and ultraefficient dental hygienist. Looking more and more like her mother, Diane Ladd, Dern’s wide range of facial expressions — from Stepford Wife-placid to a contorted mask of reproach and menace — is the film’s true wonder.

Making his directorial debut, screenwriter David Atkins (Arizona Dream) attempts to create a very specific tone and atmosphere, a sort of surreal normalcy a la Blue Velvet, but doesn’t quite pull it off. Novocaine isn’t numbingly dull, just never as clever as it aspires to be.

Showing exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W. of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.

Visit the official Novocaine Web site at

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].