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An insightful look at a couple in crisis

Alan Rudolph's 'The Secret Lives of Dentists' gleams with acute portrayals.

August 01, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

In "The Secret Lives of Dentists" Alan Rudolph sketches a portrait of a seemingly idyllic marriage with briskness, economy, wit and grace. The film is essentially an extended vignette, as the couple deals with an unexpected but mundane crisis, and one of Rudolph's key strengths here is his acute sense of proportion: Each ingredient is just enough.

David and Dana Hurst (Campbell Scott and Hope Davis) share a successful dental practice in an unnamed large city. A most attractive couple who met in dental school, they've been married 10 years and live in a gracious old home in a leafy suburb with their three small daughters.

David is a reflective, conscientious husband and father. He is deeply in love with Dana, loves his children -- in fact he's more adroit handling his daughters than his wife is, and in a very real sense is a more domestic creature than she is. David feels the grind of routine but is more accepting of it than his wife, who gets a chance to break out of her rut by singing in the chorus of an opera company. It's such an emotional outlet for her that she feels genuine sorrow and loss when the curtain rings down on the company's one-night-stand production of Verdi's "Nabucco."

However, sometime before that performance got underway, David -- who does not respond to the opera or his wife's thrill in participating in it any more than their children do -- has caught sight of Dana through an open stage doorpassionately kissing a largely unseen man. It is just a quick glimpse, but its effect on David is devastating, and at age 38 he feels he has reached "the age of grief" (the name of the 1977 Jane Smiley novella that Craig Lucas has so deftly adapted for the screen). "The Secret Lives of Dentists" now focuses on how a man, constitutionally incapable of confronting his wife about the almost certainly momentary incident, goes about living his life while grappling with his pain and jealousy.

Not surprisingly, David is a dedicated professional who's fascinated by teeth and how, paradoxically, they can outlast life yet be eroded by those who do not take good care of them. (There may be an awfully literal metaphor in this for the taking.)

At the outset of the film he treats a surly patient, Slater (Denis Leary), who is his antithesis. He's a seedy, cynical trumpeter who has just lost his job and been kicked out of the house by his wife. He is a sour, bitter man, and David finds himself conducting imaginary conversations with Slater, who is forever encouraging his worst instincts and baiting him for being a wimp about Dana. Slater becomes a projection of David's heretofore repressed dark side and therefore an expression of his inner struggle as he realizes he must come to terms with his angry, destructive impulses.

It's a tricky device to have Slater materialize all the time, unseen, of course, by everyone except David. Rudolph handles Slater's imagined presence fairly smoothly and also humorously, but the picture might have been stronger if Slater could have been heard on the soundtrack from time to time instead of seeming omnipresent to the point of obtrusiveness.

This observation is more conjecture than criticism because "The Secret Lives of Dentists" is a stylish work from an accomplished, sophisticated filmmaker that bristles with intelligence and gleams with Scott's and Davis' multifaceted, astutely judged portrayals. The film also glows with the clear light and cool tones of cinematographer Florian Ballhaus' images, and its shifting moods are expressed beautifully by Gary DeMichele's distinctive score, at once spare yet dramatic.

"The Secret Lives of Dentists" does not pack a wallop nor it is it intended to. It instead offers the rarer pleasures of insight and contemplation in its depiction of decent people attempting to deal with life like adults.


'The Secret Lives of Dentists'

MPAA rating: R for sexuality and language

Times guidelines: Complex and disturbing adult themes

Campbell Scott...David Hurst

Hope Davis...Dana Hurst

Denis Leary...Slater

Robin Tunney...Laura, David's assistant

Jon Patrick Walter...Mark, Dana's assistant

A Manhattan Pictures International presentation of a Holedigger Films/Ready Made Film production. Director Alan Rudolph. Producers Campbell Scott, George Van Buskirk. Executive producers Martin Garvey, David Newman, Jonathan Filley. Screenplay by Craig Lucas; based on the novella "The Age of Grief" by Jane Smiley. Cinematographer Florian Ballhaus. Editor Andy Keir. Music Gary DeMichele. Costume designer Amy Westcott. Production designer Ted Glass. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.

At selected theaters.

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