Robin Clifford"Teeth outlast everything. Death is nothing to teeth. Life is what destroys teeth."
David (Campbell Scott, "Roger Dodger") and Dana (Hope Davis, "About Schmidt") Hurst share a dental practice, a solid marriage, three young girls and a home in suburban Westchester. On the eve of Dana's debut in an amateur Verdi production, David inadvertently spies her backstage in the arms of another man. As Dana's infidelity manifests itself in her actions and is reflected in their children's behavior, Dave withdraws into a fantasy land in "The Secret Lives of Dentists."
Producer/actor Campbell Scott's lengthy struggle to bring author Jane Smiley's "The Age of Grief" to the screen has paid off with career highs for everyone involved. Exploring some of the same themes as "American Beauty," this film makes that Oscar winner seem pretty superficial in retrospect. "The Secret Lives of Dentists" is an American masterpiece.
In their bustling practice, Dave and his assistant Laura (Robin Tunney, "The In-Laws") attend to combative trumpeter Slater (Denis Leary, "Ice Age"), a new patient who snidely informs Dave that 'No dentist ever likes another's work,' before having a filling replaced. Dave and Dana have their daily check on who will attend to dinner that evening.
Caught up in the minutia of everyday life, small strains are evident before Dave's thunderclap of discovery. Youngest daughter Leah (Cassidy Hinkle) wants only Daddy, slapping out against her mother's outstretched arms. As Dave attends to the children at the dinner table, the artistically intellectual Dana attempts to share her joy in Verdi, singing sweetly in the kitchen. She's ignored and we see the hurt in her eyes, her spirit trampled. After Dave learns that Dana might be having an affair, he begins to notice how she overdresses for errands that run on too long, how he picks up dinner more and more often as she comes home late, how she suggests he leave early with the girls for their country home where she'll join them later after catching up with paperwork. She pokes and prods him to speak, but he refuses, afraid that openness will introduce changes he's not willing to accept. He shows his love physically, while his anger builds, spurred on by an imaginary Slater, the match to the fuel of his rage. When a mean bout of the flu lays waste to the family one by one and the last to get sick, middle child Stephanie (Lydia Jordan), reaches a fever of 105.2, the crisis seems to pull the family together, but Dana rebels, forcing David to confront her adultery.
Scott quietly continues to build an exceptional career as an actor and producer and hopefully his role as David Hurst will finally garner him wide recognition. His emotionally closed dentist articulates his distress in the tightness of his wind, his weak but uncharacteristic questioning, his immersion in child care, his building resentment of house husbandry. The actor seems to age in front of our eyes as he's 'arrived at the age of grief.' Hope Davis is his match as the ethereal intelligent beauty searching for the missing piece of her life. The actress communicates her character's division, how she tries jolt Dave into satisfying her needs. We see how the demands of family life weigh on her as she readjusts her posture before entering the country home. The characters' relationship is symbolized by a flashback of the two, Dave confidently racing down a hill with Dana perched on his bike's handlebars - he likes to keep her a little off balance by having control and the actors' faces convey this beautifully - it's the only time we really see Dave smile while she looks fearful but thrilled. (These flashbacks are beautifully countered in the present when Dana admits to Dave 'You scare me a little. You don't smile and you're tall.')
Leary's acidic persona is used beautifully as the devil sitting on Dave's shoulder. Director Rudolph ("Trixie," "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle") slowly darkens Slater's appearance so that by the time Slater arrives in Dave's high temp house to trumpet "Fever" accompanied by a slinky, vamping version of Laura, he's an inky-eyed seducer. Tunney, an undervalued young actress, strongly supports Campbell's story arc. She shows the tiniest hint of unrequited attraction to her boss and is thrown into turmoil when he ardently thanks her for helping with a family situation - she emphasizes Dave's propensity for not seeing what is in front of him.
Craig Lucas's ("Longtime Companion") adaption and Rudolph's direction perfectly meld reality with Dave's ruminations of memory and fantasy. As Dave strides backstage tribal drums begin and everything slows down, becomes dreamlike. Figures block Dave's view of Dana, rapturous in the arms of another man, splintering his vision, delivering pain with quick jabs. Cinematographer Florian Ballhaus ("Investigating Sex") desaturates a reimagining of Dave's that drips with venom - he and the kids accompany her on her errand and she has them drop her off at a stranger's house for 'about twenty minutes,' while true memories of their romance are enveloped in the golden hues of autumn. Ballhaus's camera snakes around the action, in one scene leaving Dave's office to capture both he and his wife lost in thought on either side of their offices' dividing wall - what brings them together also separates them. Rudolph masterfully builds on the small moments that define life, such as in a simple scene where Dave massages out his wife's foot cramp, while using details, like an old movie playing on a bedroom TV set, to comment upon the action. Production designer Ted Glass kept a real home almost intact and preserves the lived in imperfections of a family home.
The film's final scene ('Are you staying?') is tentative and emotional and ambiguous and hopeful, a perfect wrap up. Rarely does a film cause those visceral adrenaline rushes of recognizing greatness, but "The Secret Lives of Dentists" brings waves of them. It is the best American film of the year to date and one that will be hard to beat.
Dave Hurst (Campbell Scott) and his wife Dana (Hope Davis) have a thriving dentist business, three little girls and a secure and happy life. That is until, one day, Dave sees Dana in an intimate moment with another man. Is their seemingly happy life a sham? Or, is it just "The Secret Lives of Dentists"?
Producer/star Campbell Scott has spent well over a decade trying to get Craig Lucas's adaptation of Jane Smiley's novella, The Age of Grief, to the big screen. Once funding was finally established Scott and company brought on board helmer Alan Rudolph to guide the effort and, in one of those rare times in cinema, achieved a subtle masterpiece in an extraordinary story about ordinary people.
To look at the Hursts is to see the ideal American family. They are successful in their careers, working closely together every day, and are actively raising their three young and very lively daughters, Lizzie (Gianna Beleno), Stephanie (Lydia Jordan) and Leah (Cassidy Hinkle). For Dave, the nurturer of the family, things could not be better. He loves the commotion of his girls and is the consummate "mother" in the house. Dana, though, is a passionate and sensitive woman and needs more than just hearth and home to fulfill her life. Her love of opera and lovely singing voice allow her the chance to perform in a professional performance of Verdi's "Nabucco," and herein lay the rub.
On the night of the big performance, one of the girls proffers her lucky rabbit's foot to mom who, distracted, leaves it in the car. The girls insist that Dave go backstage and bring the charm to their mother. He dutifully complies. What comes next is a shock to Dave's system when he witnesses, from afar, another, faceless man affectionately brushing Dana's cheek. Rather than confront the situation Dave pockets the amulet and says not a word.
Meanwhile, Dave faces a surly patient named Slater (Denis Leary), a trumpet-playing jazz musician with an uncooperative, almost hostile, attitude toward dentists. At Dana's recital, after Dave's glimpse of her intimacy with another man, Slater publicly confronts his new dentist, accusing Dave of shoddy treatment. Distracted with his revelation about Dana, Dave tells Slater to see him at the office. As the performance begins, Dave flashes back over the years he and Dana have shared together - their first date, attending dental school, sex, marriage, and birthing babies all unfold in the troubled dentist's mind.
This is where Craig Lucas's screenplay takes off. We see the world, primarily, through Dave's eyes as he is now intensely aware of everything that Dana does - her frequent runs to the store to pick up milk, or going in to the office early or staying late, leaving Dave to take care of the kids. Everything she does outside the home carries Dave's suspicion of her infidelity and his mind runs wild, including imaginary visits by Slater, with the musician acts as his conscious and alter ego. As the story unfolds we are kept wondering if Dave is nuts, Dana is cheating or both.
Alan Rudolph, a hired gun here as opposed to his normal in-depth involvement in his films, does a superb job at the helm. Of course, it helps that he has an exemplary cast and an imaginative screenplay/story that makes the doings of an ordinary family extraordinary and several fantasy sequences that include one particularly standout torch number - Robin Tunney does a sexy rendition of "Fever" to a jazzy score that is, alone, almost worth the price of admission.
Campbell Scott is making tremendous inroads as both actor and producer and he continues the build in "The Secret Lives of Dentists." As an actor he carries himself naturally as he copes with Dana's unfaithfulness while trying to take care of his girls. Dave does not confront Dana because he hopes that, by being silent, the problems will fix themselves. Scott's Dave, as he constantly carries around his youngest, most demanding daughter, Leah, has the air of the dedicated father and husband whose world, and his mind, may be falling apart.
Hope Davis, as Dana, gives a remarkable and subtle performance. She doesn't have the maternal nature of her dedicated husband and has the need to grow in directions away from her family. She throws herself into her singing and revels in the opportunity to perform with professionals. When her big night ends and the footlights fade she goes through a post-performance depression, the reasons for which are just speculation through the bulk of the film. While Dave is the focal character, it is Dana who is the catalyst of the crisis that descends on the Hurst family. Davis gives a fine and talented performance.
Denis Leary fits in perfectly as the fantasy Slater who speaks what is on Dave's mind. Sometimes, though, Dave doesn't realize it when he, instead of Slater, vocalizes his thoughts - "I could kill you!" he says out loud to Dana, thinking Slater spoke the words and not him. Leary's fly on the wall persona helps solidify the fantasy aspect of "The Secret Lives of Dentist."
A remarkable aspect to "The Secret Lives of Dentists," and the thing that rounds the film out and gives it its anchor to reality, is the brilliant casting of the Hurst children. Normally, in films, the children are either precocious little critters or simply background characters. The trio of youngsters chosen to play Lizzie, Stephanie and Leah give such believable performances I was completely taken by them. Little Cassidy Hinkle, as Leah, is convincing as the spoiled baby of the family as she clutches her father and rejects her mother, sometimes with tantrums of behavior that ring incredibly true.
Campbell Scott leads his crew with such obvious dedication to the material. Bringing on a great filmmaker like Alan Rudolph is just one of the many nice touches that make "The Secret Lives of Dentists" a fine craftwork. The director displays the necessary range to get the drama of the extraordinary-ordinary family, change gears to the fantasy and throws in a music number or two. Florian Ballhaus, son of thrice Oscar nom'd Michael, follows in his father's footsteps with an assured lensing style that fits the arc of the film, from the commonplace to the surreal. Production design, by Ted Glass, captures the environs of the Hurst family perfectly - the dentist office feels real (I've spent enough times in the dentist chair to know), as does the Hurst household.
"The Secret Lives of Dentists" is an understated masterpiece that shows American filmmakers can still make great, not just good, movies. I give it an A.
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