Unloved by patients, disrespected by M.D.s, and fabled owners of the highest suicide rate in the working world, dentists are accursed with a woebegone reputation. Part torturer, part milquetoast, your typical D.D.S. is at once feared and loathed, an unappreciated figure whose good works literally never see the light of day. Perhaps this is why Dr. David Hurst (Campbell Scott) already seems defeated when we first meet him. Wrist-deep in a patient’s mouth, the good doctor intones, “Teeth outlast everything” — a profession of admiration for the subject of his life’s work, as well as a piquant reminder of the fleeting nature of things.
In Alan Rudolph’s The Secret Lives of Dentists, teeth and dentistry become unlikely metaphors for the dissolution of a marriage, that most fragile of permanent institutions. Dave may be a genuinely mild-mannered man, but the diffident note in his opening voiceover hints at larger troubles. “Death is nothing to a tooth,” he says, adding, “Life is what destroys teeth.” In those words can be heard a subtle indictment of “Till death do us part.”
Adapted by playwright Craig Lucas from Jane Smiley’s novella The Age of Grief, The Secret Lives of Dentists is set in that outpost of American banality, suburban upstate New York. Dave runs a successful dental clinic with his wife, Dana (Hope Davis). Sweethearts since their days in dental school, the two seem to have achieved the American ideal: a comfortable home, another house in the country, and three daughters, a rambunctious crew that makes homelife as much work as work.
While Dave emanates quiet contentment with his thoroughly prosaic life, Dana is more restless. When not working on teeth alongside her hubby, the still-sexy mother is busy with a fledgling performing career. Cast in the local performance of Verdi’s Nabucco, Dana is preoccupied with nighttime rehearsals, leaving her husband to slave over the children. The arrangement seems satisfactory for everyone until the night of the show itself: running backstage to give Dana a good luck charm, Dave catches his wife being caressed by another man. Confused and unsure what to do, the suspicious husband slinks away unseen and unheard.
And so he’ll remain. Plate-throwing pyrotechnics may typify its genre, but Secret Lives is oddly impelled by paralysis. The marital crisis unfolds entirely through Dave’s prism. The shock of his discovery is matched only by his fear of talking about it: he reasons that confrontation only leads to decisions — final, momentous decisions. Dave drifts through the days pretending he saw nothing and avoiding talk, all the while trying to read the signs from his increasingly alien wife.
Not helping matters is his overactive id: Slater (Denis Leary), an irascible patient bitter about a botched filling, starts appearing by his side uninvited. Seen only by Dave, the hectoring apparition feeds his fears and gives the cuckold unwanted advice that ranges from taking a lover to killing the no-good adulteress. It takes a while, but the goading cracks Dave’s calm. “I could kill you,” he mutters to Dana, prodded by a sneering Slater. That small detonation freezes the family at the dinner table and cements Slater’s place in Dave’s increasingly addled mind.
Eschewing the loopy romanticism of his past efforts, Rudolph displays admirable restraint in representing domestic drudgery. Built on Dave’s silences and inaction, the movie is keenly attuned to the clamorous rhythm of family life. The incessant warbling of the Hurst brood is nothing more than life’s background music to their parents. (As the sisters, Gianna Beleno, Cassidy Hinkle, and Lydia Jordan turn in three of the finest child performances you’ll ever see.)
Even more impressive than the display of the quotidian is the pitch-perfect rendition of a marriage in stasis. Dave’s cozy groove appears to be Dana’s miserable rut. In a rare moment of shared introspection, Dana confides in Dave on married life: “It just keeps getting smaller and smaller.” Later, as the two lie in bed together, a disconsolate Dave whispers the movie’s most heartbreaking line: “I’m sorry I’m me.”
It wouldn’t work so well if it weren’t for Rudolph’s estimable leads. Wearing a mustache that screams, “Cheat on me!” Scott stops well short of playing Dave as a laughable caricature. His dentist is an astounding creation, an archetypal family man whose passivity is as frustrating as it is comprehensible. Coming off his tour de force as a loquacious cad in Roger Dodger, Scott’s turn here represents a stunning 180, and seals his reputation as one of the best American actors of his generation.
The luminous Davis manages to hold serve — and may have the more difficult job of the two. Radiating normalcy and disquiet, she lends Dana a mysterious sheen that fuels Dave’s suspicion, and makes her that much more attractive to him (and us). Driven by Dave’s interior monologue, the movie requires that Dana be at once familiar and yet utterly unknowable. (It also begs the question of what the movie would look like from her vantage.)
Undeniably plangent though it is, Secret Lives is seriously marred by a conceptual blemish. The overused trope of the id run amok is beyond unnecessary: it betrays a lack of imagination. It certainly doesn’t help that Slater wears what looks like Tyler Durden’s jacket throughout the film. (When asked at a Q&A about the resemblance to the Fight Club character, Rudolph pled ignorance, saying he’s never seen the movie.)
As funny as some of Leary’s shtick is, the device is woefully lame. Particularly atrocious is a sequence in which Dave imagines his assistant (Robin Tunney) as a curvy torch singer (with Slater on trumpet), crooning “Fever” as he and the family suffer through a nasty case of the flu. Astonishingly literal-minded, the fantasy sequences break the movie’s spell. If Dave’s taciturnity is the movie’s keystone, then overexplication nearly sinks it.
It’s a shame, since greatness seems within reach. The movie’s virtues are nowhere more apparent than in its beauty of a climax, when Dave gathers the gumption and finally asks his wife, “Are you leaving or staying?” Sitting on opposite ends of the dinner table, the distance between the two seems like miles, and only the wail of the baby upstairs suggests a common destiny. One of the best scenes of marital brinkmanship ever filmed, it’s emblematic of the movie’s understated integrity. When it’s not tarting up its quiet truths with cheap conceits, Rudolph’s portrait of a marriage on the brink proves uncommonly perceptive.