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SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS, THE (director: Alan Rudolph; screenwriters: Craig Lucas/from the novella “The Age of Grief” by Jane Smiley; cinematographer: Florian Ballhaus; editor: Andy Keir; music: Gary DeMichele; cast: Campbell Scott (David Hurst), Denis Leary (Slater), Robin Tunney (Laura), Cassidy Hinkle (Leah Hurst), Hope Davis (Dana Hurst), Gianna Beleno (Lizzie Hurst), Lydia Jordan (Stephanie Hurst); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Campbell Scott/George Van Buskirk; Manhattan Pictures International; 2002
“This one is worth seeing.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Secret Lives of Dentists is an indie that was on the shelf for a number of years after the untimely death of the intended director Norman Rene. It is adapted by playwright Craig Lucas from Jane Smiley’s late-’80s novella of marital angst, The Age of Grief, and is insight-fully directed by Alan Rudolph (“Afterglow“/”Equinox“/”The Moderns“). Its theme about the complications of nuclear family life is finely tuned, though it is not an emotionally warm experience. The characters distanced themselves too much and became more like objects one looks at under a microscope to study a disease, at least, for this viewer to care that much about them. Though it was easy to relate to their experiences, as the reality of their situation was sharply nuanced. It toys with a messy domestic situation, as it wisely mixes comedy and reality. The comic efforts saved this film from lapsing into too clinical a character study. The result is an intelligent film made for a mature audience, who are more concerned with something thought-provoking over something that strictly entertains.

Dr. David Hurst (Campbell Scott) is a caring dentist who married the girl of his dreams, Dana (Hope Davis), who also happens to be a dentist. They met in dental school and now share a suburban practice in an undisclosed location, have three small clamorous daughters, material comfort, two homes and live the American Dream. David loves being a dentist, having a family, being middle-class, and having a bright and attractive wife. But all is not as rosy as it appears. First, we discover that the three girls might be sweet, but are demanding and crave constant attention and cause chaos in the household. The youngest, Leah (Hinkle), reacts negatively to mom and slaps her whenever mom approaches to do her motherly thing. This rejection mom attributes to a phase she’s going through. The eldest Lizzie (Beleno) and the middle-child Stephanie (Jordan), have bonded and almost speak in one voice. They entertain themselves watching an endless supply of TV programs. Dad is the better parent, as mom looks to perform in community opera after work as a way of relaxing and takes a passive stance in family matters.

While attending Dana’s one-night operatic performance in a minor role in Verdi’s “Nabucco,” Dave goes backstage to give her a lucky rabbit’s foot from Lizzie. But he catches a glimpse of her passionately kissing a strange man from the community theater he can only see from the back of his head and miserably retreats without her knowing he was present. This causes the quiet man to have imaginary conversations with one of his quarrelsome patients, Slater (Leary), who says he hates all dentists. The patient is a trumpet player with a cynical attitude about life and marriage in particular, who is outspokenly blunt and macho. He mocks the pained Dave for not trying to find out who his wife is having an affair with and for not dumping her. Dave’s response is that he loves his wife so much that he can’t risk the chance of losing her. The Leary character is a borrowed literary device, whose caustic remarks fuel the rage that builds in the otherwise mild-mannered Dave. It was a tricky act to pull off, having Leary be sometimes the real patient complaining about his dental treatment and that his wife gave him the boot, and also be the imaginary cigar-smoking alter ego figure in Dave’s fantasies that he has an ongoing duel of wits with in various spots in his personal life.

Rudolph puts it all together and doesn’t wander far from the dentist’s family problems with abstract themes or arty stuff that might look good but has nothing to do with the story, as he often does in his other films. Rudolph strays once in the scene where the girls start taking sick with the stomach virus and the doctor treats it more as a psychological thing. The medical doctor wrongly infers that the girls are sick because the parents are fighting. The point was made once, but when repeated it was overkill. But except for a few minor flaws, this was a well-drawn study of a grown man’s dreams and jealousy and lack of communication skills and beliefs coming under assault, and of him fully believing this scenario is exactly what he wants and will not escape from this beautiful prison he created. There was comedy when the whole family takes sick and starts heaving, especially after seeing how the all-mighty dentists became vulnerable and reacted as miserably as their patients who are under the drill in their office. This is the type of sensitive and meaningful film that Paul Cox makes, as in his “My First Wife.” In my opinion, comedy relationship films are the hardest to make and Hollywood makes so many but very few are worth seeing. This one is worth seeing. Hope Davis and Campbell Scott are just superb as dentists who ponder what makes them feel alive–as work doesn’t seem to be all that it is cracked up to be, nor does family life.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”