The Secret Lives of Dentists

"Teeth outlast everything. Death is nothing to teeth. Life is what destroys teeth."

Laura's Review: A+

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.

Robin's Review: B+

I had read the James Thurber short story when I was a kid and it has stayed with me to this day – after all, who does not daydream once in a while. In the original, Walter Mitty is out shopping with his domineering wife and, in its very few pages, brings us into his fantasy world. Mitty is a dreamer and thinks of himself in these dreams as a hero. Ben Stiller takes this very short story and turns it into something that is more of a metaphor for the homely caterpillar turning into a beautiful butterfly. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” starts off adhering, somewhat, to Thurber’s short story. Walter has a crush on his coworker Cheryl Melhoff but he is too shy to approach her for a date. Instead, he daydreams about his heroic rescue of her three-legged dog from a gas explosion – and making a prosthetic leg for the pup in the process. There are a couple more of Walter’s fantasies in the mix before the real story, by Steve Conrad, kicks in. It is just before the last paper issue for Life Magazine is to hit the street before the publication goes online. Walter, the company’s “negative asset manager,” is in charge of getting the magazine’s last cover photo ready for press. The photo is by Life photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn, terrific, as usual, in the tiny role), an adrenalin junkie who travels the world with his camera. There is one problem, though. The critical cell #25 is missing. Walter must find O’Connell to find out what the photo is, but the only clues are the cells before and after #25. This is where “The Secret Life of Walter MItty” takes on a life of its own, far beyond the short story. Ben Stiller stars and directs this fantasy adventure about a milquetoast worker who is called upon to brave the harshest of elements, including a hungry shark, to track down the elusive Sean O’Connell. Mitty is so obsessed with finding the wandering photographer he does not realize he is becoming the adventurous, brave and creative man he once just dreamed about. It is a feel-good yarn that uses its copious special F/X effectively in moving forward Walter’s journey to becoming a hero. “The Secret Life…” works best when Walter makes his trek to find Sean and must face one dangerous adventure after another. Unfortunately, the adventure deflates when he returns to New York and Cheryl. Kristen Wiig is saddled with a two-dimensional Cheryl and there is no real chemistry between her and Stiller. This makes the film lopsided but the adventure side of “Mitty” is loads of fun and it will entertain more than just the kids.