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'The Secret Lives Of Dentists'

'Dentists' gets to root of troubled marriage

Friday, August 29, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

A title like "The Secret Lives of Dentists" cries out for a punch line. The movie provides one in the person of Denis Leary, playing one of his standard cynical malcontents.

 
 

'The Secret Lives Of Dentists'

RATING: R for sexuality and language.

STARRING: Campbell Scott, Hope Davis, Denis Leary.

DIRECTOR: Alan Rudolph.

   
 

But the movie turns out to be no laughing matter -- it's a drama of marital dislocation between a wife seeking new vistas and a husband whose home and family represents everything he's ever wanted.

Campbell Scott and Hope Davis portray David and Dana Hurst, who share not only a home and three children but also a dental practice. As the film begins, she's thrilled by the opportunity to sing in the chorus of a Verdi opera. When it's over, she suffers an emotional letdown.

But David suspects it's not just the music she misses. He thinks he's seen her exchange intimacies with another man at the theater and suspects she's having an affair. He won't ask her -- if she admits it, home and family go up in smoke. But not knowing is just as bad. His overactive imagination envisions her having sex with virtually everyone he knows.

Leary portrays one of his patients, Slater, who has marital problems of his own and a smart mouth that won't hold a filling. Before long, David is imagining him, too -- as confidant and adviser. Maybe Slater's the repressed macho side of David that resents having to increasingly play mommy as well as daddy to his little girls. Whatever -- there's some Iron John bonding going on here as Slater tempts David to forget his responsibilities and become someone else's idea of a man.

The strength of the movie, directed by Alan Rudolph and adapted by Craig Lucas from Jane Smiley's novella "The Age of Grief," lies in that rarest of all movie ingredients, the depiction of realistic people in the throes of quiet desperation. David and Dana might be our neighbors or friends. Their children behave like real kids, not like smart-mouthed Hollywood brats or pint-sized people wise beyond their years and certainly more mature than their elders.

That being said, the quasi-fantasy figure of Slater becomes a double-edged sword. He certainly energizes the film and speaks for a part of David that would never verbalize his feelings -- at the very least, he gives David a sounding board.

But he is a fantasy, as are so many of David's imaginings through the film. We see everything from David's point of view, and you begin to wonder whether the intimacies he saw in the theater were imagined as well, or could be innocently explained away. We'll know for sure by film's end, but explanations will remain hard to come by.

"The Secret Lives of Dentists" becomes labored at points, and Scott makes David perhaps too reserved for the movie's good -- at some point, he needs to declare his true feelings in complete, heartfelt sentences (Davis, as watchable as ever, tells us all we need to know without giving away anything she shouldn't).

Overall, however, the film treats the audience like adults. How can mature audiences, those of us that are left, complain about that?


Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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