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The Secret Lives Of Dentists

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Secret Lives Of Dentists

Starring: Campbell Scott, Hope Davis
Director: Alan Rudolph
Rated: R
RunTime: 104 Minutes
Release Date: August 2003
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Denis Leary, Robin Tunney, Gianna Beleno, Cassidy Hinkle, Lydia Jordan, Kevin Carroll

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Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

Some benighted people have contempt for cab drivers who can't speak English. Almost everyone mistrusts lawyers and used car salespersons. But of all the people who work for a living, the ones considered the squarest, the least hip, the most wrapped up in their fields to the exclusion of the arts, dentists are right up there with accountants and actuaries. Mention the word dentist and watch a smile (ironically) come to the face of people who think of these tooth mavens as too straight-laced to be believable. Do they have a life outside the office? Do the men have wives or girlfriends and the women have men to come home to? Do they play tennis and watch the Super Bowl? Probably not, but in the movies anything is possible.

Or so say Craig Lucas, the successful writer of imaginative plays such as "Prelude to Kiss" (which played well years back at New York's defunct Circle Rep Theatre), and Alan Rudolph, the sixty-year old director of such offbeat films as "Trouble in Mind" (a stylized melodrama set in the near future about an ex-cop fresh out of jail who ties up with some young innocents) and "Mortal Thoughts" (about the questioning of a woman who may be involved in a murder).

While Rudolph and Lucas are too committed to whimsy to mimic Ingmar Bergman, in adapting Jane Smiley's novella "Days of Grief" to the screen they portray a disintegrating marriage by showing people undergoing the stresses that real people may find themselves suffering. What's more they avoid the hackneyed histrionics of soap opera while dishing out a good deal of comic fervor. In the more interesting initial half, Rudolph finds Dr. Dave Hurst (Campbell Scott) working in the same dental office as his wife Dana (Hope Davis), also a dentist a physical closeness at work which is itself a recipe for trouble. After their busy days in the office, they go home to three young daughters, the youngest going through the terrible two's and into slapping her dad when he holds her and resisting the open arms of her mother. Their other daughters, now of school age, are well behaved but add to family tensions by flu-like illnesses which their pediatrician believes are the result of the kids' "picking up the anxieties" of their parents. In a key scene, David spots his wife, who is engaged in an amateur opera presentation of "Nabucco," in what looks like the embrace of another man. When she comes home late now and then, he suspects infidelity but keeps his fears to himself lest a confrontation lead her to end their union.

While the story itself is nothing new, Rudolph's treatment is imaginative. Sitting in as Dave's alter ego, Slater (Denis Leary), in the role of a patient who would be angry and vindictive even if the filling he receives from Dr. Hurst did not fall out, pops up from time to time in Dave's hallucinations. He's in the Hursts' home, he's outdoors in the country. He comments like a Greek chorus on the impossibility of marriage and in a climactic point urges Dave to kill with wife by bopping her with a poker. When Dave unconsciously mutters "I could kill you" within his wife's hearing, their marriage comes to a head.

There are times that you might want Dave to go off the wall like Steve Martin's character in Frank Oz's "Little Shop of Horrors" or the same comic in David Atkins's "Novocaine," the successful dentist who's about to marry his hygienist but is attracted to a female patient who leads him down a dark path. Yet the subtleties are a treasure. We sometimes wonder whether grounds exist at all for the deterioration of their marriage given the way Dave takes care of the three girls whether through their vomiting or, in better times, by cutting up their food while Dana seems unattached to home life. The real problem is that like the stereotypical dentist, Dave's lack of charisma and Dana's distant look make are the existential root of their dilemma rather than anything they actually do.

Campbell Scott does not have the role of his life as he did in Dylan Kidd's "Roger Dodger" but the always reliable performer would be welcome in anything he does while Hope Davis, so determined and strong in Alexander Payne's "About Schmidt" is so aloof that we don't wonder that the only reason Dave wants to keep the marriage together is to avoid the hassle of a divorce and custody battles. Denis Leary is his signature self, the comic center of the drama with huge pompadour and provocative demeanor, a perfect Mr. Hyde to Campbell Scott's Jekyll. "Secret Lives" is nothing if not toothsome.

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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