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The Secret Lives of Dentists

MOUTH TO MOUTH

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For 20 years or so, Alan Rudolph has been one of the buried treasures of American cinema. His movies -- like Choose Me, Trouble in Mind, The Moderns, Afterglow and Trixie -- are smart, humane, intimate, romantic, witty and gently imaginative, yet not so quirky that you need a film degree to get them.

His latest, The Secret Lives of Dentists, is his most conventional work in a long time, despite its many passages that take place only in one character's mind. Based on a book by Jane Smiley, the palatable domestic Pulitzer Prize novelist, and adapted by Craig Lucas (Longtime Companion, Prelude to a Kiss), it's about a 10-year marriage between two affluent suburban New York dentists with three young daughters, a joint practice, and a weekend pied-Ã -terre in the country. All that's missing in their busy lives are a dog and, when we meet them, the contentment you'd expect to go along with such good fortune.

For Dana Hurst (Hope Davis) seems to have lapsed into a kind of malaise, and David Hurst (Campbell Scott) concludes that she's having an affair when -- backstage at the local production of a Verdi opera in which she performs -- he catches a prolonged glimpse of Dana's quiet ecstasy as she accepts an embrace and a kiss on the cheek from a man whose face David can't see. This is all it takes for David to become silent with burgeoning anger and fear -- and with the certainty that if he asks Dana about it, they'll have a discussion, which will only lead to disaster (or, as he calls it, "the machinery," meaning lawyers and divorce).

This isn't much on which to hang an entire movie, unless you're someone like Rudolph, who has always had confidence in the ability of interesting or recognizable people, portrayed by outstanding actors, to keep us thoroughly involved.

In The Secret Lives of Dentists, he gets some help (up to a point) from a familiar device: the devilish inner voice of the simmering David, represented by Slater (Denis Leary), an unsatisfied patient and jazz trumpeter who, after publicly lambasting David's dentistry, begins to appear to David as a manifestation of his repressed rage. At the dinner table or in the car, this alter-ego Slater ridicules David and prompts him to say and do things that are far more confrontational than his passive-aggressive nature normally permits.

Things become especially bad when Slater mutters, "I could kill you," and David says it aloud to Dana, right in front of the children. Ever the edifying father -- moldy food in the fridge prompts a lesson on bacterial consumption -- David tells his brood that people can't control their thoughts, but that you "mustn't act on every thought that you have."

After that, it's more silence, more distance, more suspicion, and of course more acting out from everyone. Then, one by one, the members of the Hurst family get the flu, along with all the short tempers and vomiting that comes with it. (Sick of all the heaving, Slater asks: "Do you people do anything else?") And after that comes a dawn of sorts, and a plausible resolve that suggests another movie (not a sequel).

In order to enjoy The Secret Lives of Dentists, you really do have to appreciate filmmakers who believe that human behavior is worth distilling and re-creating. When the family's youngest daughter erupts into the terrible twos, perpetually screaming for Daddy (Mommy won't do) and slapping her parents' faces, or when David forgoes his umpteenth chance to tell his wife and lover how he feels, it's impossible not to connect with Rudolph's slice of life. (If children really throw up this much, then maybe Swift was right after all.)

Although the fantasy Slater becomes a slight drain on the drama, some of David's other mental pictures make up for it. He imagines his wife in her office, engaging in an orgiastic exam with her patient and a male nurse (and then, later, with a female nurse). He also thinks back to their college courtship: bike rides with Dana on the handlebars, and in dental school, Dana's first extraction, after which she smiles and holds up the bloody tooth for all to see as David grins with ardor and pride.

This, I think, might actually be the loveliest moment in The Secret Lives of Dentists because it captures at once all three elements of the title. (Smiley called her novel The Age of Grief. ) You can take or leave its metaphors ("death is nothing to a tooth"); you can laugh, sometimes out loud, at its stealthy wit (the dentists have a droll assistant); and you'll certainly enjoy Rudolph's somber, jazzy soundtrack (Lou Reed, Jeff Buckley, The The), which winnows through the action. But the film's success finally relies heavily on Scott and Davis, who have worked together before (in The Daytrippers), and who are so absorbing because, simply put, they know what the hell they're doing. These are serious actors who have shorn themselves of the need to be noticed, and who have replaced it with a mix of intelligence and craft that leaves you almost high with sensation.


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