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Thread: The Weak, Silent Type

  1. #1
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    The Weak, Silent Type

    By Oscar Jubis

    THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS centres on David Hurst(Campbell Scott), a dentist who shares a practice with his wife Dana(Hope Davis). They have three young daughters and live comfortably in Weschester County,NY. David muses via voice-over narration about teeth and dentistry before we are introduced to the rest of the family. The Hursts prepare to attend an opera performance in which Dana plays a minor part. The picture of idyllic family life is suddenly broken when David catches Dana sharing an intimate moment with a man backstage. This is the first of many situations that may indicate Dana is unhappy and possibly cheating on David. We meet Slater(Denis Leary), an obnoxious musician who is "the patient from hell", a demanding boor who penetrates David's psyche to provide needed comic relief. Otherwise, SLOD is about how David will approach and resolve the impending marital crisis.

    THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS is an adaptation of The Age of Grief, an 80s novella by Jane Smiley consisting primarily of David's monologues. The script's main alteration is to expand the character of Slater to serve as David's fantasy projection, transforming the novella's monologues into dialogues. This adaptation was slated to be directed by Norman Rene, prior to his death in 1996. Rene had directed several plays written by Craig Lucas such as Reckless, Longtime Companion, and Prelude to a Kiss. I find that enjoyment of this film is largely predicated on the viewer's ability to develop some empathy or sympathy for David and his plight. I could not.

    David Hurst is constantly bombarded by incidents that show that Dana is unhappy, no longer in love with her husband of 10 years, and leads a secret life elsewhere. David is attentive toward her and constantly tells Dana he loves her. She does not respond. She neglects their daughters-the youngest one shows a distinct antipathy towards her mother- who are practically being raised by David. He has to be one of the most repressed characters in cinema history. He decides not to confront Dana, to ignore the obvious for what felt to me like an eternity. I personally felt his behavior went beyond what a meek and repressed man would do (or not do). As the evidence piles up, David begins to look stupid, not introverted.

    To be fair, I chuckled at a few comic lines about dentists and their trade, and up to a point, enjoyed Mr. Leary's boorish persona (he seems to be repeating his The Ref role). I also find a great deal of truth in the depiction of the spoiled Hurst children and the indignities of parenthood. But most of THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS hurt like a root canal.

  2. #2
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    We agree (as do others) on the root canal.

    Alan Rudolph had a run in the early Eighties –- Choose Me, Songwriter, Trouble in Mind -— that made you want to see anything he did. Then came some grating efforts -— Made in Heaven, The Moderns, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle -— that cancelled out much of the attraction. His new movie, The Secret Lives of Dentists, has pieces of both Alan Rudolphs, the splendid one and the annoying one. But since it stars Hope Davis, who was so sharp in About Schmidt, and Campbell Scott, who seemed on a roll with Roger Dodger, you had to want to see Rudoph’s latest effort.

    Scott and Davis play a pair of married dentists, David and Dana Hurst, who met in dental school, which for them was more romantic than it sounds, and now share three young girls and a joint practice. The movie is about the distance that’s grown up between an American couple too professionally interrelated, too busy with shared family duties, too mired in the great deadener of routine, to find the aloneness in which their own relationship once bloomed. They love each other but they’ve forgotten how to show it; they’ve lost the spark. She admits she finds him unsmiling and scary; he has reasons to distrust her.

    After a dental overture, David sees Dana kissing a man before an opera she’s in the chorus of —- which he then watches in the audience with their three daughters: there’s a clear sense that you can’t escape from anything, though as the days go by, Dana disappears for a mysterious errand every so often, with obvious implications that David doesn’t want to investigate, because he’s afraid Dana will choose an unknown other man over him and their marriage. And his life, he well knows, is all about that marriage. But like some others whose lives are all about other people, he’s curiously distant and selfish.

    There’s a patient from hell, Slater (Denis Leary), who comes for an appointment with Dana but gets a filling from David, which at the opera he publicly announces has fallen out. This may seem a strange way to bond, but Slater hereafter becomes David’s fantasy misogynistic alter ego, an invisible presence like the giant rabbits in Donnie Darko or Harvey. Slater is a jazz trumpet player who’s half Willem Dafoe and half Chet Baker and a total nervy discontent who continually urges David to dump his marriage. Was he always a fantasy, or is he just crudely drawn in his first couple of scenes? Hard to say. Slater is the quirky Alan Rudolf at work, but not quite working.

    The body of the film is the five days when flu runs through the Hurst family and David does all the caretaking, even when he’s physically sickest and mentally most desperate over the state of the marriage. This concentrated, relentless sequence is a unique mixture of tedium and wonderment that’s Alan Rudolph at his best and worst. After all members of the family have recovered from this patient ordeal, Dana disappears for 24 hours. When she returns and says she’s staying not going, David smashes a few things in the dining room and the crisis is over. The final scene which then follows, a surreal coda that like Slater’s appearances is perhaps pure metaphor, shows Dana in the dental chair and David checking her teeth. It’s an odd way to end a movie, but maybe not so odd for the Drs. Hurst.

    I thought of my own dentist, whom I happen to like very much. Dentistry is so surreal in this movie, even in the most specifically dental scenes: but would any of it nonetheless seem real, or accurate, to a genuine practitioner, to the man who takes care of my teeth? I don’t know, but I wish there were a bit more about the silly and painful details of the dental experience in The Secret Lives.

    What makes this feel like an Alan Rudolf movie isn't entirely easy to explain. Partly for sure it’s the fantasy trumpet player whose performing interludes are happily brief (would that the operatic passage were so). Perhaps also it's the odd presence of a young black pediatrician who thinks all the family illnesses are psychosomatic, even when they've got fevers over a hundred. Certainly it’s the the sheer insane, audacious length of the flu episode, with Campbell Scott running up and down stairs and fever and vomiting and the doling out of ginger ales and “It’s OK’s” ad infinitum, not to say ad nauseum.

    Alan Rudolph is a keen student of disintegrating relationships, and his talent for that subject isn’t wasted here, but his movies in the good old days used to be slightly naughty fun, and the trouble with this one is that at times the obvious analogy holds: it does begin to seem a bit like a root canal. The action is so unspectacular at best that it has a tendency to feel slight and drawn out, and too often (in David Hurst’s dental euphemism) it “pinches.”

    Nonetheless Hope Davis and Campbell Scott’s performances are marvels of hot/cold restraint, and when the three little girls (Gianna Beleno, Lydia Jordon and Cassidy Hinckle) are interacting with each other, they are as charming and as real as can be. Scott is so immersed in the flu sequence, picking up girls and cleaning up messes and assigning chores, that there are brief moments of magic when you almost forget it’s a movie.


    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-31-2003 at 04:40 PM.

  3. #3
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    The Career of Alan Rudolph

    Originally posted by Chris Knipp
    Alan Rudolph had a run in the early Eighties –- Choose Me, Songwriter, Trouble in Mind -— that made you want to see anything he did. Then came some grating efforts -— Made in Heaven, The Moderns, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle -— that cancelled out much of the attraction.

    I am in basic agreement with Chris Knipp in that the last time a film directed by Alan Rudolph got into my Top 10 was 1985 (TROUBLE IN MIND). Besides, his other films of comparable quality are older: CHOOSE ME (1984) and REMEMBER MY NAME (1978).

    Having said that, some recent Rudolph films, such as the well received AFTERGLOW (1997) and the sparesly distributed BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS (1999), are quite effective.

    On a more personal note, sometimes Alan Rudolph's choice of subject matter simply matches my interests. I am referring to THE MODERNS and MRS. PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE, which are not everything one would want them to be but I found them extremely enjoyable. THE MODERNS, a flawed film as Chris points out, features Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and other American notables in 1920s Paris and culminates in New York with the opening of the Museum of Modern Art. The first hour is quite good and the rest is peppered with amusing bits -such as Wallace Shawn in drag- and some nifty visuals.

    In MRS. PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE, Rudolph's script is chock-full of witty remarks and the cast is up to the task. Also, how often do we get in films nowadays a depiction of a warm, supportive, platonic relationship like the one between Mrs. Parker and Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott). Which brings me to Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dorothy Parker. If film appreciation is a rather subjective endeavor, evaluating a performance is even more so. I happen to think Ms. Leigh is one of the best actors working in film and her performance here is the type of no-net, bravura acting that is quite rare. Few actors take such chances. She understood that for Mrs. Parker sitting around that table was like being up on stage. She understood that a "naturalistic" portrayal would be totally wrong for the character, after doing her typically thorough research into the real Dorothy Parker.

    As for THE PRIVATE LIVES OF DENTISTS, it is hard to think of it as a "Rudolph Film" in that this is the first time since 1991's MORTAL THOUGHTS that he was not involved in developing the screenplay. He was brought in to direct by the producer and playwright Craig Lucas after Norman Rene's death.

  4. #4
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    I confess that I have not seen Remember My Name. I do think Songwriter of interest, perhaps more for the idea than for the execution. I'm afraid I also missed Afterglow and Breakfast of Champions. I can assure you that the subjects of The Moderns and Mrs. Parker, etc. are also of considerable interest to me as relating to the generation of my own highly literary and artistic parents--and that's why I did go to see these films; but this personal literary and family generational connectionb didn't make watching these arch and grating efforts more of a pleasure; to the contrary. I found Jennifer Jason Leigh one of the more grating aspects--not that her theatrical manner was in itself a mistake; it was simply the way it came off. Her performance was "pushed." It was too self conscious and called too much attention to itself. As for Dentists, it may be that the relative prominance of the Slater character is a Rudolphian note, as others also have thought, but you may well be right, that Rudolph isn't very much himself in this latest effort as indicated by his lack of authorship. You can see in my piece that I was casting about with some difficulty to find Rudolphian notes.

  5. #5
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    It's boring like a root canal, but doesn't hurt.

    I'm glad I'm not alone in my dissapointment with this film. While another user wrote this film "hurts like a root canal", it's more like having your brain numbed with novicaine.

    I'm won't reiterate the story outline here since that's been done several times (there really isn't much of a story). Some have argued this film presents the oppressive situation of parental responsibilities and work in an adult manner. While this might be true (as a single person I don't know first hand), the film is done in such a deliberately understated way, it's fails to evoke much emotion from the audience. Secret Lives of Dentists is the type of film where what isn't said is intended to have more of an impact that what is. As viewers we're supposed to get more out of the silence and non-verbal interactions than the actual dialog or story. This technique can work brilliantly when done well, but the story is bland (there really is no plot, just a series of mundane occurences) and the characters are so bleak that for the most part the film says nothing.

    The film's only saving grace is an dental patient played by Dennis Leary. Leary is really the only character in the film who seems to register a pulse. His acerbic humor is really the only worthwhile aspect of The Secret Lives of Dentists. Unfortunately, he isn't on screen enough to carry the film the way he might have been able to. The Secret Lives of Dentists is competently acted and directed, but vague and unmemorable. **1/2

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