Film - Philip Kerr finds that Novocaine is less interesting than a visit to the dentist
BBC2 is currently broadcasting a series entitled Hollywood Inc, which "takes you inside the dream factory that is the American film industry". It seems like only yesterday that the BBC gave us Naked Hollywood, and the only major differences between the two are the latest movies and stars this new series chooses to spotlight. For example, back in 1991, when Naked Hollywood was first screened, Arnold Schwarzenegger was the biggest thing at the cinema. These days, poor Arnie looks like something that's escaped from Jurassic Park.
But it isn't necessary to spend thousands of pounds of licence-fee money to gain an insight into Hollywood. You can learn just as much from the average film press release. Last week, I went to see Novocaine, a low-budget picture "starring" - for want of a better word - Steve (The Jerk) Martin; and during some misplaced moments of optimism before the movie started, I glanced through the notes thoughtfully provided by a charming PR girl to aid my understanding and enjoyment. I am bound to say that these were more interesting than the film and, as a way of understanding the whole auto-sodomising process of film-making, I offer you a short precis of the Novocaine press notes as a useful sidebar to the much more expensive BBC series.
Not one word of this rubbish, which appears in quotation marks, has been invented by me.
"For years, inspired by his father and two brothers, David Atkins, a graduate of the Columbia film school, wanted to write a screenplay featuring a dentist protagonist. 'I think dentists are contemporary heroes,' explains Atkins. 'They epitomise the American Dream.'
"In 1997 Atkins went 'undercover' in the offices of his father and brothers; he spent a month posing as a dentist and studying the inner workings of a dental practice. Atkins cites several influences for the unique style and tone of Novocaine, among them Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and absurdist surrealism of Jacques Tati and, of course, Alfred Hitchcock."
(Kubrick? Who's he kidding? But it isn't long before a producer buys the line Atkins is selling and allows this pygmy his first shot in the director's chair; and before you know it, Steve Martin - never knowingly undersold - has agreed to play the part of dentist Frank Sangster.)
"'Frank Sangster is a man who follows the path he believes he's supposed to follow,' explains Martin. 'Under the surface, though, he's not completely satisfied. In a sense, Frank creates the nightmarish drama that he falls into. I think the movie is about the subconscious mind trying to make itself happy by creating behaviour that will alter the status quo.'"
(Oh dear. Poor Steve sounds more like a Hollywood shrink than an actor. Listening to this neo-Freudian twaddle, it's only too easy to imagine Martin in the office of his analyst, moaning about some issues in his life, like a frosty-haired, less likeable version of Tony Soprano. Why don't people like me? After a string of dismal failures such as Father of the Bride: II, Bowfinger and The Out of Towners, Steve Martin must have as much career angst as poor Arnie. Steve appears to be suffering from a condition we critics call Robin Williams syndrome: it sometimes happens when American comedians stop being funny and start to take themselves seriously. This is something that even Novocaine co-star Helena Bonham Carter appears to recognise in her leading man. In the notes, she tells us: "Steve is very funny when he's being serious." Now that I can see. But sadly, it's not just Steve who sounds as if he has been to see an analyst.)
"'Novocaine is a movie about control and the lack thereof,' explains Laura Dern, who stars as Jean Noble, Frank Sangster's anal-compulsive dental hygienist and fiancee. 'Frank lives a very contained life; he cuts off certain sides of himself. I think every single character in the movie does that. And some of them create damage by not being who they truly need to be. It's really about repression.'"
(Poor Laura. She really buys this crap, doesn't she?)
"During pre-production, Martin spent time in the offices of Atkins's father and two brothers in order to research their profession. With the additional guidance of Atkins's family on set, Martin was able to perfectly replicate the manoeuvres of an experienced dentist."
(Oh, come on. Who does Steve Martin think he is, Robert de Niro? But it may be even worse than that.)
"When I watch Steve work, I think of Charlie Chaplin. On set, he could watch a demonstration of a dental procedure just once and mimic it perfectly. He's a master of physical acting. It's fascinating to watch," Atkins tells us in the notes.
Doesn't this stuff make you want to puke? But that's Hollywood. Oh, for the days of Robert Mitchum who, asked about acting in films, said: "The only thing wrong with performing was that you couldn't phone it in."
Novocaine (15) is released on 5 July