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With: Campbell Scott, Denis Leary, Robin Tunney, Peter Samuel, Hope Davis, Jon Patrick Walker, Gianna Beleno, Lydia Jordan, Cassidy Hinkle, Adele D'Man
Written by: Craig Lucas, based on a novella by Jane Smiley
Directed by: Alan Rudolph
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality and language
Running Time: 104
Date: 09/09/2002

The Secret Lives of Dentists (2003)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Nothing But the Tooth

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Dentists always have something bad to say about other dentists' work, complains Denis Leary's character in The Secret Lives of Dentists.

One could easily take that statement and read it into the rest of the film, which peers into a few miserable days in the lives of one American family. How easy it is to say we'd do something different, if it we were in their shoes.

David and Dana Hurst (Campbell Scott and Hope Davis) are married with three daughters (Gianna Beleno, Cassidy Hinkle, Lydia Jordan) and they work together every day in the same office as dentists. When Dana makes her stage debut in the choir of a local opera, David accidentally spots her backstage in the embrace of another man (we never see his face).

Leary plays Slater, an aggressive musician who shows up for a long-overdue dental appointment and torments David. Later he appears to David as a kind of spirit who dispenses testosterone-drenched advice, things the likes of "hit the road, Bub... you don't need this."

On top of all this, one of the girls comes down with a violent 24-hour flu, which takes a full five days to pass from one family member to the next. All worldly cares are set aside in a sea of vomit and bedside graciousness.

Director Alan Rudolph does not shy away from the pain -- that hollow, gnawing feeling that comes when your safety net disappears -- but at the same time he treats the material as a comedy. How can he not with all this throwing up? This movie has the highest hurl factor since Monty Python's The Meaning of Life or Stand by Me.

In the end, he takes us in very close to this situation and gives it a prying, voyeuristic feel. We're watching one thing and feeling another. Only the actors' eyes give away what's really going on.

In one outstanding scene, David has agreed to take the family to their country house for the weekend. He arrives hours before Dana. Convinced she's taken the extra time to see her lover again, he sulks outside house, hiding out of sight and watching the front door. When Dana actually arrives, she doesn't know she's being watched; she stops at the door and takes a moment to compose herself before entering. This before coming home to her own family, her nest. It's a devastating moment.

Coming from Jane Smiley's novella The Age of Grief, Rudolph correctly hired playwright/screenwriter Craig Lucas (Longtime Companion, Prelude to a Kiss) to adapt the screenplay. This is a writer who knows the insides of relationships, and can play them out intelligently in a confined space.

One would think that in the midst of all this brutally realistic talk that the Leary character would not work. He's a fantasy figure, but he's also an easy way for Rudolph to externalize David's fear and rage and give us something to hitch our emotions to. In addition, he serves as a welcome comic relief when the pain gets to be too much.

At the same time, this puts Davis' character at a disadvantage. We know less about her than about anyone else. We don't even know for sure if she's actually having an affair (we only assume she is). Yet Davis makes the character breathe with her brilliant instincts and sheer talent, just as she did in About Schmidt and the upcoming American Splendor.

It all comes back to Rudolph, our most enduring independent filmmaker, who has always enjoyed a flawless eye for casting and who always provides an inner life for his characters. His sometimes-quirky vision -- exemplified here by Leary -- can sink a picture (such as Equinox or Trixie) but The Secret Lives of Dentists floats in the ether.

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