A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
What's the story?
This dark and stylish tale of lies, cheating, extortion, incest, betrayal, and murder centers on dentist Frank Sangster (Steve Martin). Frank has a successful dental practice that is operated with efficient precision by his fiancée, Jean Noble (Laura Dern), yet he is vaguely unsatisfied. When beautiful patient Susan Ivy (Helena Bonham Carter) asks for narcotic pain medication, Frank knows it is wrong, but he is drawn to Susan, almost intoxicated by her. He prescribes 5 pills, his first small departure from a life of conventional propriety. Then the pharmacist calls to ask about the prescription, which Susan altered to say 50 pills. Against his better judgment, Frank approves the pill count. Susan comes to see him in the office after hours. He knows he should not perform dental work without staff around, but he agrees. They end up having sex. Every time he breaks the rules he ends up getting in deeper trying to cover up Susan's violations and his own, becoming more enmeshed and more trapped in his lies.
Is it any good?
This movie's shocking plot twists keep surprises coming until the very end. "Average man caught in a spiral of deceit" movies are really about the loss of control; in NOVOCAINE, Frank's world at first appears as exact and precisely regulated as his dental office. Although he tells us in a voiceover that everything is the way he wants it, we see hints almost immediately that he finds it sterile and unsatisfying. Even before he meets Susan, we see hints of his tolerance for – and interest in – a less controlled life. As we see Frank fall under Susan's spell, it appears that Frank feels suffocated by his success and is intrigued by those who chose another path.
This movie is a throwback to classics of the "film noir" genre, with a seductive but mysterious woman in distress drawing the law-abiding hero into a web of corruption. Instead of rain-soaked streets on moonless nights, though, this film is set in the white, sun-lit environment of a California dentist. Director David Atkins and stars Martin, Dern, Koteas, and Bonham Carter make good use of the contrast between the bright, sterile setting and the dark desires of the characters.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how people can feel suffocated by doing everything "right." Why was Frank so fascinated by Susan? Why did he put up with Harlan? What did he really think of Jean? Why was it so hard for him to understand what he wanted? What do you think the author was trying to tell us with the names of the characters, like Jean Noble and Susan Ivy and Frank?
- In theaters: November 16, 2001
- On DVD or streaming: April 23, 2002
- Cast: Helena Bonham Carter, Laura Dern, Steve Martin
- Director: David Atkins
- Studio: Artisan Entertainment
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 95 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: violence, sexuality, language and drug content
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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