“The Secret Lives of Dentists” may not sound thrilling, but lurking within is a story of immense power. Alan Rudolph’s chronicle of the disintegrating marriage of two dentists who also share a practice plays like “American Beauty” without the histrionics. It’s an incisive — and subtle — exploration of suburban malaise, and its cumulative impact is stunning.
Campbell Scott stars as Dr. David Hurst, and Hope Davis is Dr. Dana Hurst; they live in a stately, four-bedroom house with their three daughters in Westchester County, New York. While the reticent “Dr. Dave” worries about his patients and about preparing healthy meals for the girls, Dana is preoccupied with neither work nor family — she’s rehearsing for a minor role in a regional opera company’s production of Verdi’s “Nabucco.”
Through circumstances so banal they ring true instantly — Dave observes his wife backstage when she doesn’t realize he’s in the room — he begins to suspect she’s having an affair. Their entire relationship cascades through his memory as he sits and watches the opera, and afterward he begins noticing little signs of deception — like how Dana dresses in a skirt for a leisurely morning trip to get breakfast, or how she says she’ll be home by 6:30 but breezes through the door at 7:15.
Meanwhile, Dave is needled by Slater (Denis Leary), a trumpet player whose cynicism about dentistry is confirmed when the filling Dave gives him falls out. Slater accosts Dave about his shoddy work in front of hundreds of people, then returns to have the damage repaired.
That’s the extent of Slater’s involvement in the plot, but Dana’s perceived affair sets the wolfish alpha male loose in Dave’s imagination. He pops up everywhere, sitting next to Dave in the car and at the kitchen table, criticizing Dave’s refusal to confront his wife and offering an alternative personality — bold, decisive, destructive.
Verbal sparring partners
The script by Craig Lucas (“Prelude to a Kiss,” “Longtime Companion”) is so well-worked-out, without a hint of literary stodginess, that one marvels to learn it was adapted from a novella, Jane Smiley’s “The Age of Grief.” Whether Lucas or Smiley is responsible, the movie has an extraordinary facility for approximating the veiled verbal warfare of a longtime couple.
Dave seems to willfully misread Dana’s signals: When she’s distraught the morning after the opera’s sole performance, he chats about his patients. Later, he initiates foreplay while giving rote, one-word responses to her probing questions about their relationship: “Do you like me? If you weren’t sleeping with me, would you want to talk to me, have lunch with me? ... Do you think that we’re friends?”
Scott and Davis are superb. They hardly seem to be acting at all, yet little moments shine through as marvels of characterization, as when Davis turns the simple act of putting lotion on her legs into a gesture of extraordinary hostility.
Rudolph’s facility with actors extends to the three delightful little monsters who play the Hurst children, as well as to the perfectly cast Leary and to Robin Tunney, who in the small role of Dave’s hygienist makes every moment tender and true.
Rudolph, who apprenticed as an assistant director for Robert Altman in the 1970s, has the same gift for naturalism; it’s as if we’re hanging around in the Hurst household without their knowledge, observing all the quirks and nuances that outsiders should never be privy to. Yet Rudolph sticks strictly to Dave’s point of view, allowing his images — photographed with crisp, economical beauty by Florian Ballhaus — to remain empathetic rather than voyeuristic.
“The Secret Lives of Dentists” really does depict secret lives: Dave and Dana’s crisis is self-contained, confided to no one except the imaginary Slater. It could be going on in any family, without anybody noticing. That Rudolph has allowed us to see it is thrilling.