The Secret Lives of Dentists
2003, R, 104 min. Directed by Alan Rudolph. Starring Campbell Scott, Hope Davis, Denis Leary, Robin Tunney.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Sept. 5, 2003
Dentistry doesn’t really have anything to do with the secret lives on display in Alan Rudolph’s domestic drama, but professional teeth-yanking does seem appropriate for the film’s hero, Dr. David Hurst (Scott), who is overburdened and underappreciated. Initially, David seems distant, always in bedside-manner mode, and he has a funny little mustache that demands twitters, not respect. At home, David loosens up, but it’s clear the household equilibrium is way off. The father of three little girls, David is the primary caretaker, cooking, cleaning, shuttling kids back and forth to school, while his wife, Dana (Davis), with whom he shares his dental practice, works increasingly late nights at the office. (Quietly, but tellingly, Dana sits at the head of the dining table while David sits beside her and cuts his daughter’s meat.) Soon, David suspects Dana of having an affair, and his imagination – who would have thought this sad sack even had one? – takes over. He fantasizes about kicking his wife, quite literally, to the curb, invents fairy-tale endings to real fights they have had, and, most dramatically, even hallucinates one of his patients – a trumpet player named Slater (Leary) – as a sort of running commentator on David’s life. It’s an intriguing, if problematic, approach to David’s innermost thoughts. It’s not a far stretch to imagine Denis Leary as a beer-guzzling smartass mouthing off in the back of the brain, but when Rudolph attempts something more baroque – for instance, the leather-jacketed Slater hanging out of a car’s sunroof, bleating mournful jazz on his horn – the effect is unintentionally comic. Still, with these inner dialogues – between David and Slater, or, more accurately, David and his alter ego – we get real insight into what David is thinking. (About as forthcoming as he gets outside his imaginary universe is to explain an outburst to his daughter as, "Daddy’s feeling … a little complicated.") The secret David, however, is funny and sharp and bewildered by the betrayal of a woman he still loves fiercely. It all adds up to a portrait in decency, which isn’t nearly as sexy as the title would suggest, but after Scott’s spectacular turn as a womanizer in Roger Dodger, his quietly affecting performance here is like a warm oatmeal bath in which to sit back, ruminate, and speculate about the secret lives of dentists, husbands, and humans.