David Atkins’ Novocaine would have made a dazzling debut 10 or 15 years ago. It’s still a good film—intelligently cast, with a visual design that sticks in your head and a comically mordant tone that’s all its own. But its mix of film noir conventions, black comedy, and self-conscious references to other movies is by now a very familiar one. Whether or not you’ve had enough of films that work in the Coen Brothers and Tarantino tradition will probably determine how much Novocaine you can stand.

The best thing about Novocaine is that it successfully plays both sides of the noir tradition—it lets you care about the characters even while it kids the genre they’re trapped in—and it’s a fitting accomplishment because the movie is about a man who steps inside the looking-glass. Steve Martin plays Dr. Frank Sangster, D.D.S., and a leading practitioner of the Good Life: his dental practice is thriving, he lives in a stunning modernist home, and he’s engaged to his beautiful, take-no-guff dental hygienist Jean (Laura Dern). But Frank’s life begins to show signs of inner decay when two new arrivals show up at his door: first, his low-life brother Harlan (a miscast Elias Koteas), and then a new patient, the beautiful and mysterious Susan Ivey (Helena Bonham Carter).

Susan in particular throws Frank for a loop, first by seducing him in his own dentist’s chair, and then by cleaning out his drug inventory. He can’t get her out of his system, though, not even after the DEA begins asking some pointed questions and Susan’s psychotic brother, Duane (Scott Caan), turns up and begins threatening both Frank and Susan with violence. All that’s bad enough, but then one character turns up dead and all the evidence in the crime points at Frank. Just as he’s realizing that his perfect life is a worthless charade, Frank is forced to navigate a minefield between the authorities, manipulative criminals, and a lover’s lies.

Despite its premise and a couple of grisly scenes, Novocaine leans equal weight on its comic and dramatic feet. Working from his own script, Atkins introduces just enough realistic elements, such as Susan’s drug addiction, to ground his far-fetched situations without dragging the mood down. And he’s an assured director, pulling off some fairly complex set-pieces (such as Frank’s escape from a motel room that’s being guarded by an army of policemen) in a manner that’s both plausible and free of trickery.

Atkins has a harder time working out the kinks in some of his characters. Koteas’ Harlan is a blatant cog to help make the movie’s machine go. (It doesn’t help either that Koteas sports the most god-awful haircut you’ve ever seen, a Prince Valiant do minus the bangs. Not even losers like Harlan are caught dead looking like that.) The focus of Jean’s character is on her desire for order and perfection, but she’s been assembled from different personality types: it’s impossible to reconcile the combative woman who’s ready to kick Duane’s ass with the sweetness-and-light figure who talks to her stuffed animals like a little girl. Scott Caan provides some disturbing moments as the volcanic nut-job Duane, but Duane’s explosiveness soon becomes monotonous. (Ray Liotta’s similar character in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild was tempered by unexpected moments of vulnerability that wound up making him both more complicated and more menacing.)

Novocaine is hurt even more by its promiscuous in-jokes. Allusions to other flicks may make audiences feel knowing, but they’re simply glib when they don’t add anything to their stories, and when the movies being referenced are on the order of Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive, you’re not even talking cheap thrills—you’re just talking. At least Atkins isn’t an ageist: he massages older moviegoers, too, by naming his detectives Lunt and Lily Pons. Even the one gag that works—a cameo by Kevin Bacon, playing a delightfully vapid actor who tags along on the police investigation in preparation for a role—is repeated in one scene too many.

Steve Martin’s charisma as a high-flying con-artist in The Spanish Prisoner was a revelation, but it’s a side of himself that he rarely shares with audiences. Too bad: his Frank Sangster, understated to the point that he’s fuzzy around the edges, could have used a little more dash. Laura Dern works past the inconsistencies in her character and adds another oddball character to her credits; she’s building less of a filmography than a menagerie, and it’s a wonderful thing to watch. But the best performance in Novocaine belongs to Helena Bonham Carter, who continues to shred her image as the Merchant-Ivory Girl by playing the drug-addicted femme fatale Susan Ivey. With her dark eyes, pencil-thin limbs, and rivulets of sweat and mascara streaking her face, Carter looks like an escapee from a Charles Addams cartoon. With a few more roles like this one and Marla of Fight Club, she might become our first female Peter Lorre.

– Tom Block