Secret Lives of Dentists, The

Director: Alan Rudolph

U.S.A.| 2002. Colour. Dolby digital stereo. 101 min.

‘Remember when a year seemed like a long time?’ At the end of another routine and joyless day together, a wife lobs this small grenade at her husband in The Secret Lives of Dentists, a sharply observed and often brutally funny dissection of the modern marriage. Thoughtfully expanded from a Jane Smiley novella by writer Craig Lucas and director Alan Rudolph, the film catches their marriage at the breaking point. By turns ineffectual and sardonic, Campbell Scott matches the verbal fireworks in Roger Dodger with another performance that deflects his natural charisma, exposing his character’s hidden vulnerability and ugliness. Approaching middle age as model suburbanites, Scott and Hope Davis run a husband-and-wife dental practice and manage three young daughters. Already burdened with his role as Mr. Mom, Scott begins to suspect Davis of having an affair with a local stage director. Reluctant to set the machinations of divorce into motion, Scott doesn’t broach the subject with her. Meanwhile, he enters into a running dialogue with his conscience, which appears in the form of Denis Leary, a disgruntled patient who plays the proverbial devil on his shoulder.
Using teeth as a pliant metaphor for marriage (sturdy yet sensitive, an enterprise that outlasts the body but decays slowly in the mouth), The Secret Lives of Dentists digs into a common domestic scene with uncommon complexity and insight. With Scott playing the perfect foil to Leary’s exasperated sage, the fantasy sequences are hilariously caustic, but as they accumulate more rapidly, the distinction between real and imagined situations becomes disturbingly vague. Once the film enters a bravura sequence in which a deathly flu passes around the entire family, the impending collapse of Scott and Davis’ marriage grows as ambiguous as a fever dream. After two notorious duds, Breakfast of Champions and Trixie, Rudolph returns confidently to form, shedding light on a crumbling institution that American films are often too squeamish to touch.

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