Film Reviews: Wednesday, August 20, 2003
The Secret Lives of Dentists\r\nStarring Campbell Scott and Hope Davis. Directed by Alan Rudolph. Written by Craig Lucas, based on Jane Smiley’s novella. Rated R.
Lying Through Our Teeth

Insightful and wickedly funny, The Secret Lives of Dentists takes the crown.


Unlike his famous dad George C. Scott, Campbell Scott isn’t an actor who immediately catches your eye. With his dark, slightly anonymous good looks and his silky baritone voice, he might be a tv news anchor or a freshman Congressman. Only when you’ve actually seen him in a role do you realize what an unnerving presence he is on the screen. That’s because this cooler-than-cool actor is all about reserve; he’s always holding something back. This is true even in tiny roles — his salesman in Big Night casually responds “I have no idea” when asked how he broke his hand, while in Dead Again he kicks Kenneth Branagh’s ass, and as he’s making his getaway, Branagh’s detective lies on the ground and asks, “Did that guy look like he knew karate?” It has been the same in his starring roles, which have come fitfully. David Mamet cast him in The Spanish Prisoner as the victim of an elaborate con who manages to turn the game against everybody who tried to play him. His turn as a rotten-souled, martini-swilling social gadfly in last year’s Roger Dodger showed him in all his dangerously intelligent splendor.

This actor keeps his own counsel to even better effect in the superb The Secret Lives of Dentists. Scott plays David Hurst, a man who shares a dental practice with his wife Dana (Hope Davis). They have three little girls together, including a two-year-old who screams and cries unless Daddy is holding her. That seems to be their biggest problem until David catches his wife being kissed by a strange man and glowing under the attention. (Viewers lucky enough to run across or discerning enough to track down Hope Davis’ performances in Mumford or The Daytrippers or Next Stop, Wonderland know that she can glow the way few other actresses can.)

Afraid that she’ll leave him if he forces the issue, David refuses to confront Dana openly. The rest of the movie shifts between a realistic depiction of this marriage under strain and surreal interludes that project David’s state of mind. A boorish, foul-mouthed patient named Slater (Denis Leary) appears to him, voicing David’s insecurities and exhorting him to get payback. David’s revenge fantasies come to life, and they’re cartoonishly funny and disturbingly violent at the same time. He starts to behave like Slater, and in a particularly upsetting dinner-table argument, he looks at Dana and thinks “I could kill you,” and then realizes from everyone’s horrified reactions that he’s said the words aloud.

Presiding over this is Alan Rudolph, a filmmaker with a strange career behind him. His recent works have tended to either indulge in willful eccentricity and over-the-top acting (Trixie, Breakfast of Champions) or lose themselves in uncommunicative reverie (Afterglow, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle). That doesn’t happen here, perhaps because he didn’t write the script as he usually does for his films. Instead, playwright Craig Lucas adapts Jane Smiley’s novella The Age of Grief, and while he retains a bit too much of the author’s dialogue, he knows when to depart from her story.

Rudolph is a director whose films can go spectacularly off the rails, so it’s surprising that he establishes an iron sense of control in a virtuoso scene immediately after David’s initial discovery. He cuts between Dana singing in the chorus of a production of Nabucco and a series of flashbacks tracing the history of the Hursts’ marriage, with only Verdi’s electrifying music on the soundtrack. More powerful yet is the lengthy sequence near the end in which the entire family comes down with the flu and David has to nurse everyone back to health. The nightmare of vomiting and kids crying turns into a full-blown emergency when the middle daughter becomes delirious with a 105-degree temperature. In the middle of it all, David’s hygienist (Robin Tunney) materializes in his living room backed by a jazz combo and singing “Fever,” and it’s a harrowing touch instead of a cute one. This is a movie that’s constantly balancing reality, fantasy, comedy, tragedy, tenderness, rage, and many other extremes, and Rudolph directs with such assurance that the movie’s never in danger of falling. It’s heartening that the director of Choose Me and Love At Large and Mortal Thoughts has rejoined the ranks of relevant filmmakers.

He has his actors to thank for the success of The Secret Lives of Dentists. Dana’s potentially unlikable because the movie’s never told from her point of view, but Davis infuses her with vulnerability and a sense of neglect. Still, Scott’s thoughtful, opaque performance gives the movie its emotional center even as his character grows less stable. David’s tearful outburst while massaging away Dana’s late-night muscle cramp is more unforgettable for coming out of nowhere (“I’m sorry I’m me!”). At the end, when he finds out that things are going to work out, he reacts by destroying various items of furniture. All this emotional turbulence goes on behind that handsome, impassive façade. Campbell Scott has hidden behind that face for years. He has managed to slip under the radar of Hollywood’s publicity machine and even us movie critics, but the game finally seems to be up, as we’re at last discovering what a gonzo actor he is.

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