The Secret Lives of Dentists

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Tooth Bleaching Value Kit

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

San Francisco ,
Mr. Lazere founded in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.