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Published: 2005-05-08 - 13:21:00
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The Secret Lives of Dentists Review

By Joe Lozito

Truth Decay

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The title characters in "The Secret Lives of Dentists" are David and Dana Hurst (Campbell Scott and Hope Davis), a couple married sometime after meeting in dental school, now serving in a family practice together. Between work and their three kids, David and Dana are pretty busy but Dana still finds time to perform in a community opera, during which David spies her getting uncomfortably close with a male co-star. At this point, very early in the film, David makes the interesting decision to avoid confronting his wife about her potential affair, imagining that doing so would invariably lead to separation and divorce. From then on, thanks to a wonderfully modulated performance by Mr. Scott, David becomes a study of passive-aggressive repression; he won't confront his wife, but he'll definitely hint that something's amiss. This is about as far into the "secret lives" as Craig Lucas' script, adapted from the novel by the ironically-named Jane Smiley, is willing to go. The remainder of the film involves David's attempts to avoid confronting his wife while he is taunted by the imaginary appearance of a cynical patient (Denis Leary).

Mr. Leary is a talented comedian, and by now he can play this role on autopilot. In fact, he has already played it to much better effect in 1994's "The Ref". There, he was able to interact with the squabbling husband and wife and his barbs found their targets more easily. He plays pretty much the same character here, except only David can hear him. When his wisecracking Slater actually goads David to speak his mind, the gimmick works, since Slater is playing the role of the devil on David's shoulder. Most of the time, however, Mr. Leary's character is used as comic relief and distracts from what could have been a much more incisive character study.

Mr. Rudolph creates such a real family here, that I wanted to see more of them. I didn't need the Denis Leary character to speak David's mind for him. The director is able to get surprisingly real performances from his on screen family, particularly the children. The three girls (Gianna Beleno, Cassidy Hinkle, Lydia Jordan) behave not only as sisters, but also as real kids. They are by turns immature and precocious. They are affected by the problems of their parents and they band together.

Ms. Davis does what she can to make Dana human, but we learn very little about her. Dana is such a cipher to David and to the audience that she seems heartless and unsympathetic too often. David, on the other hand, tending to the family during a realistic family-wide bout with the flu, is relegated to the role of super-dad. I don't think this is what Mr. Rudolph or Mr. Lucas were trying to convey, but the film steers clear of any real insight by having Slater pop up at the most inopportune moments to add to David's misery. Mr. Scott is a fascinatingly understated performer, doling out hints of the seething jealousy he suppresses for the sake of the family. The marriage-as-toothcare metaphor is forced, but I was willing to buy into it. I just wanted to buy into it further.

What did you think?

Movie title The Secret Lives of Dentists
Release year 2003
MPAA Rating R
Our rating
Summary There are two movies trapped inside Alan Rudolph's 'The Secret Lives of Dentists.' One is an incisive look at a family slowly pried apart by suspicion and miscommunication, the other is a gimmicky satire about a timid husband's alter-ego finding its voice in an imaginary friend (Denis Leary). Frankly, I'd like to see both movies - but not at the same time.
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