Dir: David Atkins. US. 2001. 100mins

A deeply conventional thriller that generates some unconventional laughs, Novocaine is an unpersuasive homage to film noir archetypes of gullible men and the wicked women who drive them to the edge of destruction. A classy cast and some bright comic notions are the virtues in a film fatally flawed by predictable plotting, mundane dialogue and an inconsistency of tone. Often just a notch or two above an average TV-movie production, it will struggle to make its mark in the theatrical arena.

Like the Coen Brothers The Man Who Wasn't There, Novocaine focuses on a man whose one impetuous act unleashes a chain of tragic consequences. Here, Steve Martin plays affluent, middle-class dentist Frank Sangster. Happy in his work and engaged to luscious blonde assistant Jean (Dern), he is living the American Dream but secretly concerned that his perfect world is merely an illusion. Then, he treats Susan (Bonham Carter), a provocative brunette who leads him up the garden path and into an increasingly messy saga of sex, lies and videotape. Never the master of his own destiny, he takes a long time to realise he has merely been at the mercy of other people's dastardly scheming.

Sadly, any similarities with the work of the Coen brothers are all superficial. First time director David Atkins has neither the originality nor the technical command of the medium to make the most of potentially promising material. Initial interest gradually turns to dissatisfaction as the film becomes an increasingly laboured piece of labyrinthine storytelling in which the viewer is always one step ahead of the entirely mechanical plot developments. The pleasures come in isolated, incidental detours, principally an unbilled cameo from Kevin Bacon as an intense movie star shadowing a detective as part of his research for a forthcoming role.

Restrained and subdued, Steve Martin lends a solid centre to the proceedings but his presence merely underlines the film's dilemma of whether to play it relatively straight or push the comic aspects. In his wild and crazy box-office heyday, Novocaine might have provided the basis for a rip-roaring Martin romp and has a strange affinity with his 1983 gem The Man With Two Brains in which a brilliant surgeon is the dupe of another heartless golddigger.

As played by Helena Bonham Carter, Susan is an unlikely femme fatale. A manipulative junkie whose charm is entirely manufactured, she would hardly seem the type to drive a sensible, settled older man wild with desire. Given that Sangster is already enjoying a lusty relationship with leggy blonde Jean, it stretches credibility a little too far to assume he would be so easily tempted into infidelity by such a transparent waif. Credibility is further undermined by the distinct absence of screen chemistry between Martin and Bonham Carter and the appealing teamwork between Martin and Dern who blend together quite convincingly.

The sketchy dynamics of the central relationships are just one of many problem issues in Novocaine, an ambitious but mishandled, miscast hybrid that provides little in the way of thrills and only a smattering of random comic moments.

Prod cos: Artisan Entertainment/Numb Gums Productions
Int'l sales: Summit Entertainment
Exec prod: Michele Weisler
Prods: Paul Mones, Daniel M Rosenberg
Scr: David Atkins
Cinematography: Vilko Filac
Prod des: Sharon Seymour
Ed: Melody London
Mus: Danny Elfman, Steve Bartek
Main cast: Steve Martin, Helena Bonham Carter, Laura Dern, Elias Koteas, Scott Caan.