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Teeth and wisdom

A review of The Secret Lives of Dentists

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*The Secret Lives of Dentists (R)
Manhattan Pictures International

The Secret Lives of Dentists is a pretty serious take on a pretty serious subject -- the grinding, drilling repetition of marriage-with-children. You won't need nitrous oxide to see it, but a good sense of humor and a pretty hearty investment in your own marriage will help.

Not that it isn't a good film. It is a very good film, often quite funny. However, like keeping an appointment that you've made for yourself with your dentist, you need to be a grownup to stomach the bare-bones portrait of a marriage that has just about tired itself out.

David and Dana Hurst (Campbell Scott and Hope Davis) are married to each other and in dental practice together. They are the parents of three young girls, and they're living the typical stressed-out lives of an upper-middle-class two-job family. David deals with it by immersing himself in his life; Dana meanwhile appears to be having an affair. All of the signs point to it -- an apparently illicit kiss witnessed by her husband; leaving for work early and coming home late; etc.

David deals with it like a 21st-century man. First, he continues to care for his children while his wife grows ever more distant from the family. Second, he starts to hallucinate, or have conversations with an inner demon that has taken the shape of Slater (Denis Leary), one of his most difficult patients, a nogoodnik the opposite of dutiful David.

Campbell Scott really shines in this movie, a man who has reached the age of 38, the age -- as Jane Smiley titles her novella on which this is based -- of grief. In love both with his wife and with his children, Scott delivers a pitch-perfect performance of a man who most of all wants to hold onto the life he has constructed. Scott makes it clear how much acting is about the body, even when what you're seeing is a body held in check, or one collapsing from the exhaustion of carrying a sick 3-year-old who will be held only by you. Any parent will recognize it.

Hope Davis also does a fine job as a woman who wishes she could find what was lost but is drawn away from the chaos and drama and sadness of daily life. In her case, the real work is done through her face -- the smiles and lost glances of someone who has something to hide but wishes that she didn't.

Through this fine acting, strong directing and writing, The Secret Lives of Dentists captures the texture of family life unlike any other film that I can recall. Although plenty of comparisons have been made to American Beauty, in part because of the fantastical nature of the Denis Leary sidekick who inhabits both David Hurst's mind and home, director Alan Rudolph embraces a quieter simplicity in the story. Dentists is less hip, less cocky, and, as a result, much more moving than American Beauty, which was cool to watch but, well, kind of slick and cocky. As a result, Dentists is well worth seeing for the old-fashioned reasons you might watch a film: it makes you feel -- deeper and clearer and with the bittersweet understanding that comes from the age of grief.

-- Andrea Lucard

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