The Secret Lives of Dentists

Director: Alan Rudolph

A few years ago when showcasing the work of critically acclaimed Afterglow director Alan Rudolph, the Independent Film Channel referenced a quote by the director stating that he’s spent the bulk of his career remaking the same film over and over. With The Secret Lives of Dentists, based on Jane Smiley’s novel The Age of Grief and adapted by playwright Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss), Rudolph returns to familiar territory of marital drama, secrets and infidelity. After ten years of marriage, Campbell Scott (who co-produced the film) is the mustached, seldom-smiling Dave Hurst who leads a life overflowing with tasks from taking care of his three young, high-spirited daughters and sharing his private practice with his wife and fellow dentist, Dana (Hope Davis). After he catches a glimpse of his wife in compromising circumstances—namely seen in a familiar looking embrace in the arms of a dashing musical director—Dave fears the worst and chooses not to confront his wife about his suspicions because as he puts it, then he would have to act. Instead, we delve into his subconscious with darkly comical fantasies and fears of the actions his wife is taking when she says she’s going to the store or working late and we watch Dave slowly unravel, which is aided by the fact that he’s imagined his worst dental patient with impacted wisdom teeth and a gloomy disposition (Denis Leary relishing in his role) as his sidekick in the ordeal. Throughout the film Leary’s Mr. Slater appears in automobiles, underneath the bed, and in the kitchen of the Hurst’s home running a fascinating commentary on the situation and Dave’s actions which he considers both less than masculine and heroic, resulting in Dave’s shocking outbursts that further alienate his wife. An unusual film and one of the most wholly successful of Rudolph’s in visiting his recurring themes but blending humor and tragedy at the same time. Overall, the real stars of the film, aside from the wonderful cast filled with character actors, are the unique bits of dialogue penned by Lucas from Smiley’s novel which earned Lucas the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Screenplay and Hope Davis the honor of Best Actress for her work in both Dentists and American Splendor.