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When Comedy Isn't Pretty 

A director who believes making bad movies is the best revenge on the system lives up to his ideal with Novocaine

At this year's long-postponed Emmys, Ellen DeGeneres' only mean jibe, as the smartly pixieish emcee, was a slam at Steve Martin. Dramatically ignoring him, she leaned across Martin to interview the seat-warmer in the chair next to him. Then, straightening, she feigned sudden recognition and exclaimed, "I loved you in the Naked Gun movies!"

It was the kind of joke you might hear at a friar's roast, where its humor would depend on a cozy sense of complicity between celebrity joker and celebrity jokee. But Steve Martin did not look as if he had agreed to be the butt of this particular joke. He looked about as comfortable as Oprah Winfrey and Uma Thurman squirming under the penetratingly half-witted gaze of David Letterman at the notorious 1995 Oscars show. Probably Martin knew all too painfully, as he affected his festering good-sport grin, how many people really wouldn't get the joke, who actually wouldn't know the difference between Steve Martin and Leslie Nielsen.

If Martin's new film, Novocaine, doesn't end his movie career, it won't be for lack of trying. It may be to Martin's career what 1971's Cancel My Reservation was to Bob Hope's--a crowning fiasco, after a sequence of highly questionable enterprises, laying bare once and for all the performer's complete irrelevance to the contemporary scene, and reflecting a truly staggering out-of-touchness, manifested mostly in a compulsive desire to be hip. (In the case of Hope's film, this meant a mounting series of Indian jokes--like the boffo title pun.) The condition of this film is so dire, the movie is really unreviewable, if only for humanitarian reasons; but taken with some other recent developments, it may herald the continuing decline of indie cinema. It's a particularly loud, sour note in the death knell.

Let's get the review business over with, then, right away: Steve Martin plays a dentist who hooks up with drugee Helena Bonham Carter, who steals his dentist drugs, to the seeming dismay of nurse Laura Dern, who seems to want to marry the dentist but also has designs on his brother Elias Koteas, who gets in a barroom brawl with Scott Caan, who's the brother of the drugee but also--incest being a base not yet touched upon--has a thing for her and is eventually murdered. Then the fun really begins. This sequence of events, people, themes and pronouns, I hope, speaks for itself.

But there is much in the movie that does not speak for itself, and would seem quite inscrutable if only one could work up an interest in scruting it in the first place. Consider, for instance, the comedy of dentistry. Strange as it seems, this vein of comedy has been tapped all too often in movies: There's W. C. Fields in The Dentist (the greatest of them), sundry Three Stooges shorts, and Bob Hope in The Paleface--still in his heyday, but prefiguring the downfall in his apparent conviction that the only good Indian is a burlesque Indian. The comical logic of the current farrago depends on our memory of a previous Steve Martin role, his turn as the sadistic dentist, to Bill Murray's delirious masochist, in the Little Shop of Horrors remake. Maybe dentistry lends itself to comic exploitation because of its sadomasochistic dimension--since comedy itself so often relies on both the audience's taking sadistic pleasure in characters' pratfalls, and being able to shift into masochist mode when the punchline demands it.

Novocaine is not connected enough to its audience for it to produce anything so energizing as sadomasochism. To be sure, its degree of sadism is nearly unbelievable--it lingers on shots of bloody corpses, and like the end of Poe's amazing story "Berenice," its climax turns on the wholesale extraction of teeth. There's plenty of masochism to go around too, insofar as Martin's character realizes his pursuit of the drugee will be his undoing, but follows her anyway.

But the film is so clumsy these aspects never come together--they just hang there uselessly, like loose teeth. At times there's some sense of awareness in the movie that the only thing it has going for it is weirdness, but this awareness is paralyzing rather than bracing, so it's a plodding weirdness. And a lot of what the movie presents as its novelty--its vapidly ghoulish tone, its awkwardly self-satisfied frissons--was done better 20 years ago in Compromising Positions, another dental comedy-mystery, with Susan Sarandon and Raul Julia.

One funny scene suggests some reasons why Steve Martin has never really come across in the movies. Working on a patient, Martin notices a pair of incriminating panties hanging over a chair across the room, and with his hand still in the patient's mouth, he contorts himself to try to reach them before they're discovered. It's the kind of off-centered but precise physical comedy Martin used to incorporate into his standup, back in the days when he was sucking barstools through straws. In those days Martin had a sweet weirdness you could see right in his placid, almost-handsome face, wide-eyed in repose and slit-eyed in states of beatific glee. He seemed stuck between a galling normality and a hoped-for weirdness, and his comedy seemed both manic and strangely serene at the same time--as if he were splitting the difference between out-of-control Robin Williams and hyper-stoic Steven Wright.

The routines were genial and insular and self-contained--almost never did Martin's standup refer to topical issues or, indeed, any real-world concerns whatever--but there was a current of melancholy anger beneath the good-natured whimsy, and that's what often comes across most in his movie performances. No other great comic, except perhaps Dick Van Dyke, has ever been as bland as Steve Martin; it was the balance between that blandness and the sudden bouts of wild self-caricature that vitalized his work, but there was also that odd quality of reserve, almost of tact, that kept him from mocking other people. There's no such thing as a tactful satirist, and if you're too fastidious as a comic to make fun of others, then there's nothing to parody but nothing--and Martin was doing comedy about nothing before anybody had ever heard of Seinfeld--or oneself. Martin's impulse has always been to empty out, or hold back, even that--himself. He seemed to want to generate a kind of comedy that was totally autonomous, self-dependent and non-referential, so the quasi-Beckettian world of his standup consisted only of his solitary presence and a few coordinate objects--that barstool, for instance, or his banjo.

It's not surprising, then, that the one funny scene in Novocaine--which lasts about 20 seconds--reverts to pure object-relations. In films, Martin's persona has remained self-sufficiently aloof--not out of narcissism, exactly, but out of a kind of abjection--and he's always seemed stranded between the roles of straight man and clown.

His funniest appearances, as in Little Shop of Horrors or My Blue Heaven, depend on his obliviousness to the people around him, and he has never connected with another person in a movie, except maybe John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. In the one really great movie he's been in, Pennies From Heaven, he was awful, by any ordinary standard: He spoke his lines like Cyd Charisse, and kept a doltish, dopey look pasted on his mug the whole time. But just that once, the filmmakers knew how to harness that quality of insularity to further the movie's themes of alienation. Nobody else has ever figured out how to use him in movies, including, in the few films he's written and directed, Martin himself.

When I saw Steve Martin in concert 20 years ago, I thought only a comic genius could fashion the kinds of strange, silken purses he did out of the limp sow's ears he insisted on using for material, and the only times I can ever remember laughing harder were the first time I saw Sandra Bernhard, or when I saw Woody Allen's movie Sleeper. But though Martin looks ageless, like a crocodile, he also looks weary now, as if he's starting to suspect that nobody will ever be able to figure out how to use him. (His work as a writer seems more important to him now, in his sketches for The New Yorker, and in that regard he may be the Robert Benchley of our day--nobody ever figured out how to put Benchley's odd comic presence to use in a movie either.) The turning point was probably his own movie, L.A. Story, a full-length study in the pain of not being Woody Allen, in which the sourness first crept in. Now, Martin no longer refrains from mocking others. He thrives on it.

In any case, the record is not heartening. In my view, most of his movies are wretched, and he's been in two of the worst movies I've ever seen: this one, and Mixed Nuts. David Atkins, the writer/director, previously wrote the script for a slightly more bearable oddity called Arizona Dream, an all-star freak-out (directed by a world class filmmaker, Emir Kusturica) with most of the comedy rooted in excruciation. In fact, excruciation is Atkins' interest, clearly--you don't turn to dentistry for laughs if that's not the case--and it's also clear that he loves the effects of bad movies, and thinks making bad movies is the best revenge on the system. It's not an uncommon idea, and this movie, after being delayed for months, is being cautiously released to art houses by Artisan, the distributor that rocked the indie world with The Blair Witch Project. Those of us who wondered what that movie was doing in those so-called art houses may now find ourselves considering what state we have reached when the tastemakers decide that whenever a movie is really, really terrible, it must be art. EndBlock

  • Take a painkiller before seeing Steve Martin's latest film, "Novocaine."

More by James Morrison

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