Of the two dentists here, only one’s life is actually a secret. The other’s is perfectly transparent, right down to a patient who takes on the role of conspiratorial inner voice as the good mouth-doctor struggles with what his life has become.
The real secret, of course, is that dentists are just like everybody else, with the same inner monologues and emotions and reactions. This leaves the movie without any particularly incisive point to make beyond the sheer ordinariness of our lives: Teeth cleanings twice a year if you’re lucky, root canals, crowns and bridges if you’re not. Our drill-wielding protagonist’s life isn’t especially sad or profound or exceptional, even if Dentists is well-acted and directed.
Dentist No. 1 is our protagonist David Hurst (Campbell Scott), a 38-year-old father of three little girls who has never acted on a single impulse, and may have never had a single impulse to act on. His life is as boring and pedestrian as his brushy little mustache; he is secure both in his own upper-middle-class home and in his place in the world at large. But everything gets thrown out of whack when Slater (Denis Leary) shows up in his dental chair. Slater rants about how dentists are all quacks out to make a buck by discounting each other’s work — something that David clearly must have known on some level, but which still registers as a shock. The revelation echoes into his home life: Ironically, while ferrying a lucky rabbit’s foot from his daughter to his wife as she prepares for a community opera, he discovers that his wife is having an affair. At least, that’s what he thinks he discovers — like the different perspectives of dentists on a patient’s teeth, David can’t be sure of what he sees, and he spends the remainder of the movie wondering what happened to his marriage and whether it needs fixing.
Dentist No. 2 is Dana Hurst (Hope Davis), who shares an office and a home with David. She is our mysterious dental worker, with wishes unfulfilled and unshared with her husband — who isn’t a bad guy at all, just not as special as she wants him to be. Yet it is David’s thoughts we are privy to, thoughts that mark him as not necessarily unique but at least sympathetic. He is tormented by the fear that she will leave him — that she is apparently having a relationship with someone else is less important in than the idea that the perfect life he has built for them might not be perfect after all. He acts out in ways that for him are out of character — but, of course, he’s never been in this position until now. In doing so, he creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, driving Dana away by acting on (or reacting to) his suspicions, and feeding his suspicions by driving her away. We never find out whether she’s being unfaithful; that’s secondary to what the movie is about — a man who rocks his own world on the basis of a fleeting moment that even he is unsure of. He’s an everyday man, and things like this happen every day.
Much of the film is devoted to David’s interactions with his kids, and he’s a sure candidate for father of the year. He bears his toddler’s attachment to him with the patience of a saint, cooks, cleans, and tends to sick children even while his fever is raging. (Dentists drags in many places, never more so than a protracted sequence where the entire family sequentially comes down with stomach flu.) While there’s the sense that Dana’s estrangement from the family is not entirely David’s fault, that she is going through her own midlife crisis, it’s not her world we’re in. This is David’s nightmare, David’s attempts and failures to repair damage he never noticed until a single fissure appeared in the plasterwork holding it all together.
Unfortunately, David isn’t a very interesting guy, even when Slater shows up in his troubled mind. (Leary is perfect as Slater, although you have to wonder what Nick Nolte would have done with the role, as this is the first of director Alan Rudolph’s last five movies not to feature him. I imagine it would have been similar to his performance in this summer’s Hulk and would have given Leary a run for his money.)
Making David and Dana dentists is a sort of shorthand for the assumption that some lives are not very interesting, and The Secret Lives of Dentists is meant to convey that they actually are. This is a relatively simple picture of a marriage in trouble. Its strengths lie in the sheer accessibility of what’s laid before us, and the hope that it will all work out in the end. And it just might.
Showing exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W. of Telegraph). Call 248-263-2111. Opens Friday at the Novi Town Center 8 (26085 Town Center Drive). Call 248-465-7469.
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].