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The Secret Lives
of Dentists (2002)
Alan Rudolph is a long-time movie-making maverick, a
one-time acolyte of Robert Altman who has never achieved the accolades or commercial
success of his mentor. His films tend to be highly stylized and often have an aura of
strangeness or an element of the surreal. Rudolph invariably seeks to climb under the
surface of his characters and find the individuality as well as the hidden vulnerabilities
of each. Choose
Me (1984), with Genevieve Bujold giving a fine performance as an on-the-air radio
therapist, was one of his better efforts. Trouble in Mind (1985) was another,
combining self-consciously noir conventions with serious characterizations. Mrs.
Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994), a Dorothy Parker biopic, starred Jennifer
Jason Leigh in one of her quirky performances, admired by some, annoying to others. The Secret Lives of Dentists is based on a novella by
Jane Smiley, The
Age of Grief, an internal meditation by a dentist, David Hurst (Scott Campbell),
whose wife, Dana (Hope Davis), becomes involved in an adulterous affair. Thus,
appropriately, the film is seen entirely from the husband's point of view. Dana is a
dentist, too; they are in a joint practice. They have three daughters, a handsome suburban
home, and a country house as well. Dana sings in the chorus of a local opera group; her
expression of the wonderful emotional release that opera can provide is a clear hint that
all is not well in the marriage. When the family comes to see her in a performance of Nabucco,
David sees her canoodling with someone, perhaps the music director, backstage.
(Ironically, she's playing a virgin in the opera.)
Also attending the opera (perhaps only in David's imagination) is
Slater (Denis Leary), an angry, aggressively verbal patient of David's who complains
loudly and deprecatingly that a filling has fallen out. Screenwriter Craig Lucas uses
Slater as an alter ego for David; it's a device for opening up into dialogue what would
otherwise have been David's unspoken thoughts. Surely a more imaginative approach than the
deadening voiceover, it doesn't really work here because the character of Slater, a jazz
musician, doesn't seem to have much relevance to David's life. Flashbacks are used to fill
in David's memories of his courtship of Dana.
Not a lot happens in The Secret Lives of Dentists. There are
scenes to document the devotion of these parents to their children, a motivation, surely,
for keeping the marriage alive. It's made clear that David still loves Dana, who never
says back to him, "I love you." He also catalogues to Slater the sacrifices it
took for them to get where they are in terms of career and family and financial success.
All of this detail provides the motivation for the course of action that David ultimately
chooses to take.
The problem is that the points hung on this skeletal plot all seem
obvious, the situation ordinary. There's little fresh or particularly insightful in Lucas'
rather pedestrian screenplay and, despite excellent performances by the leads, it's hard
to care much about them or their situation. Dentistry as a metaphor for marriage seems a
bit of a stretch and doesn't add significantly to the characterizations, but it does
provide a great excuse for some queasily realistic scenes in the dental chair.
Perhaps constrained by the screenplay, Rudolph's work here, while more
mainstream, lacks the idiosyncratic stylization that make his best work memorable. Still,
The Secret Lives of Dentists is more fun than having an extraction and it's not a bad
substitute for a Zolpidem.
- Arthur Lazere