Double indemnity this week: A pair of well-off but compromised working guys—anesthetized by daily routine against looming midlife crisis until a purring gamine bats her eyelashes and yanks off the ether mask—take a dive off the shallow end of the noir pool. In Novocaine, bland dentist Frank (Steve Martin) seems contented with his anal-retentive amazon gal pal, Jean (Laura Dern in High Barbie hair). But then lusty wastrel Susan (Helena Bonham Carter, reviving her Fight Club wraith) leaps into the patient’s chair, initiates a mutually satisfying root canal, and then steals all his drugs. In Auggie Rose, catatonic insurance salesman John (Jeff Goldblum) abruptly assumes a dead ex-con’s identity when he first sets eyes on the stiff’s unwitting prison sweetheart, Lucy (Anne Heche!). These protagonists upturn their lives voluntarily only to find themselves buried in contingencies, but as both films prove, a fine line exists between unexpected impulse and fishy plot convenience.
Novocaine opens dementedly enough, with a credit-sequence montage of X-ray stock footage (busy skulls chew, swallow, apply lipstick) accompanied by Danny Elfman’s most maniacal theme yet—the celestial voices shriek, the string section riots, the bass drum implodes. Then a dreary cloud descends as Frank, sharing only a certain industriousness with Martin’s Little Shop of Horrors sadist, trudges toward his appointment with fate, guided not only by his night-and-day femmes fatales but also his up-to-something brother Harlan (Elias Koteas) and Susan’s own ne’er-do-well sib, the angel-dusted, incest-inclined Duane (Scott Caan, looking like Chuck Knoblauch on a ‘roid rage).
First-time writer-director David Atkins, who hails from a family of tooth doctors, sprinkles the screen with random, cutesy detail (a bookshelf opens pointlessly onto a secret passageway; whenever our hero gets into acute trouble, oblivious couples can be spotted making out) but misses the big picture. Novocaine cheats wildly on p.o.v. and salivates over bad metaphors (Frank’s accumulating lies = encroaching dental rot), while the wildly oscillating tone never finds its key. Martin seems uncomfortable and oddly waxen (the orange Al Gore makeup doesn’t help), injecting Frank with neither restless anger nor wry humor. (A little MacMurray moxie is required when the good doc muses that he could have told the authorities all about Susan’s scam, “but then I never would have seen her again.”)
On the bright side, Vilko Filac’s pointillist cinematography, leached of dark colors and cold to the touch, efficiently evokes an astringent nowheresville, and Kevin Bacon sustains a jaunty recurring bit as an actor researching a cop role who persists in interrogating Frank at every opportunity. (Here Bacon essentially reprises his bête noire turn as the thief of Martin’s taxi in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.) For what it’s worth, Novocaine is certainly idiosyncratic, pivoting as it does on dentures and climaxing with a piquantly ironic spectacle of mutilation as self-preservation—not unlike your average visit to the dentist.
A blunt instrument of its own, Auggie Rose is only the latest feature to suck the air out of Destiny, moviedom’s current bogeyman—often assuming the form of Audrey Tautou, here materializing as ex-gay/ex-God Anne Heche. Goldblum’s desk jockey narrowly averts a bullet in a deli shootout, but the titular clerk—freshly sprung from stir and about to meet his longtime epistolary flame—dies in his arms. Tormented by survivor’s guilt and the question “What if it had been me?”, John searches for the answer by easing himself into Auggie’s former life, stealing his name, background, rented room, and, in a creepy Bounce twist, his mail-order girl. Amid the awkward pacing and gaping plot holes, the film’s chief point of interest is Goldblum’s morbidly fascinating performance: equal parts Walter Neff and Captain Kirk. Once the relentlessly pixieish Heche falls to earth and the two begin interacting, Auggie Rose shifts gears from USA Network thriller to Discovery Channel mating special.