The Secret Lives of Dentists

August, 2003, Drama

Directed by:Alan Rudolph

Starring:Campbell Scott, Hope Davis, and Denis Leary

Hollywood and makes shoes and I grow asparagus.  You know?  I'm not even in the same simile. 

Director Alan Rudolph

Is there a more idiosyncratic Hollywood director than Alan Rudolph?  A quick look at his body of work suggests the answer to that question: from the deconstructed Western, (Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson) through the dazzlingly ambivalent Welcome to L.A. to Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Rudolph's work has always been characterized by intriguing performances based on scripts that often mystify the audience.  Motivation is clearly one of Rudolph's primary interests -- but it's always murky in presentation, causing viewers to scratch their heads as they leave the theater.  Secret Lives will give them real reason to feel itchy.

In this film, adapted from Jane Smiley's novel The Age of Grief, Campbell Scott and Hope Davis play a pair of dentists who met in school, a fell in love and married.  Ten years and three young daughters later, both members of this medical/marital partnership seem to have reached a midlife crisis; Scott discovers his bride is involved with another man, and he fantasizes his reactions to her infidelity by engaging in conversations with a misogynistic musician, (Denis Leary) whose entry into Scott's professional life as a patient undergoes a metamorphosis into an imaginary commentator on Scott's disintegrating marriage. 

All this happens while the frazzled family undergoes a bout of flu the children have passed on to their parents, putting an even greater level of stress on the deteriorating relationship between Mom and Dad.  Scott's alter ego, (played to sour perfection by the always interesting Leary) allows Scott's character to verbalize the fear and anger boiling just beneath his placid surface.  His decision not to confront his wife for fear that it will set the machinery in motion for separation and subsequent divorce is a strategy viewers will undoubtedly react to in a variety of different ways. Davis's disturbingly ambivalent wife/mother doesn't seem to deserve her husband's patient response to her adultery, unless it's really a reticence borne of seething resentment…

On the surface, this couple, mixing their professional and family lives so seamlessly, seems to provide little in the way of interesting character development, yet Rudolph shows us what really happens when nothing very important seems to be happening. The kids bicker, food spoils in the fridge, endless T.V. distracts everyone and when the flu arrives, the girls vomit all over everything…it's all here, the entire panoply of relentlessly normal things which married couples endure in living together and raising kids.

Scott and Davis inhabit this pair--the emotionally constricted dentist and his brilliant, but restless wife. Communicating with artfully pained expressions and brief, constipated conversations, these two produce the most realistic married couple shown on the screen since In The Bedroom and the manner in which they use interactions with their daughters as a tool for avoiding painful confrontations with each other displays both the actors' skills and the director's ambiguous assessment of their personas.

As is often true of Rudolph movies, you may not like his characters, much less understand them--but no one who's ever tried balancing the roles of spouse and parent in contemporary middle-class American life will have the slightest difficulty recognizing the often funny and painful accuracy of what's presented here. This one is a movie for adults, in the best sense of that word.



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