Behind the lead apron
It’s the little things that count in The Secret Lives of Dentists
The title of the new Alan Rudolph film, The Secret Lives of Dentists, hints, a little facetiously, at sensationalist expose. There are indeed dentists and secrets in this story, but little in the way of tabloid-grade sensationalism. What does matter is that the dentists in this case are a married couple, David and Dana Hurst, and the troubles their marriage is undergoing are secrets of the proverbial poorly kept sort.
Based on a Jane Smiley novella called The Age of Grief, Secret Lives mixes comedy and drama in a way that justifies its friskier title. In synopsis, it’s only a little drama of marital infidelity, but under Rudolph’s directorial hand it also becomes wry and ironic, a quirky kind of romantic comedy. David realizes that Dana is having an affair, but their mutual aversion to confrontation (let alone break-up) leads less to a drama of betrayal than to a dark-humored comedy of evasions and misunderstandings.
Rudolph and screenwriter Craig Lucas tell the story from the viewpoint of David (Campbell Scott), giving him passages of meditative voiceover narration as well as a series of smoothly stylized scenes in which he has imaginary conversations with a surly patient named Slater (Denis Leary). Leary’s Slater becomes a kind of alter ego to David, an expression of hostile and peevishly vengeful impulses that undercut the mildness and calm strength that are conspicuous in David’s personality.
The interplay of Leary’s brash sarcasm and Scott’s gentle ambivalence makes for the broadest moments of comedy in the film, but Secret Lives is at its best in its wry, playful sense of unspoken feelings, deflected emotions and sublimated animosities. It’s a small tale of disturbances in seemingly comfortable, orderly lives, but it is so rich in behavioral nuance that its nonchalant amusements have surprisingly strong impact.
Hope Davis is good as the vaguely puzzling Dana, and the three kids who play the couple’s small daughters work several tiny miracles of spiky characterization. Rudolph and company take a low-key approach to every aspect of this little comedy-drama, and that has much to do with its exuding generosity and maturity of a sort that is rarely found in American movies of these times.