Life Sentences

Dentists in Domestic Prison, Nuns Behind Bars, Jewel Thieves on Holiday

Hope Davis, a willowy actress who gives the impression of pliant steel, nearly stole About Schmidt from Jack Nicholson, playing against his rants as his obstinate daughter. A less extroverted, more recessive successor to indie queens Parker Posey and Catherine Keener, Davis specializes in stubborn vulnerability; it's the basis of her performance both as Harvey Pekar's consort in the upcoming American Splendor and as the discreetly adulterous wife in Alan Rudolph's uneven domestic drama The Secret Lives of Dentists.

Davis's natural enigma is amplified in The Secret Lives, adapted by playwright Craig Lucas from Jane Smiley's late-'80s novella of marital angst, The Age of Grief—her character represents the Other. Suburban superwoman Dana Hurst is refracted for the entire film through the eyes of her wounded, adoring husband, Dave (Campbell Scott, who co-produced the film). The Hursts are both dentists; they're hitched less to each other than to the same wagon in which they drag a shared practice, two mortgages, and three obstreperous little girls through what looks to be a Cheeverian utopia somewhere in Westchester.

The drill whines at work; the kids whine at home. "I wish we were closer sometimes," Dana muses, perhaps guiltily, one night—but given their joint professional and sleeping arrangements, how much more togetherness could there possibly be? Fidelity is less the issue than loneliness. Dave would like to be inside Dana's head, but as he's the one who narrates the entire movie, that's not an option even for us. Part of the joke in making the Hursts dentists is that they are professionally invasive; they spend their days fastidiously exploring their patients' inner recesses and dispassionately probing painful cavities within. At once abstract and evocative, the movie's opening dentist's-eye view of oral hygiene sets the tone for the inquiry that follows.

That sinking filling: Scott in the Secret Lives of Dentists
photo: François Duhamel
That sinking filling: Scott in the Secret Lives of Dentists

Details

The Secret Lives of Dentists
Directed by Alan Rudolph
Written by Craig Lucas, from the novella The Age of Grief by Jane Smiley
Manhattan
Opens August 1

The Magdalene Sisters
Written and directed by Peter Mullan
Miramax
Opens August 1, at Lincoln Plaza and Loews Village VII

And Now Ladies & Gentlemen
Written and directed by Claude Lelouch
Paramount Classics
Opens August 1, at the Quad and UA 64th & 2nd

The Secret Lives of Dentists is also notably unsentimental in evoking the quotidian indignities of parenthood. Dave and Dana are regularly engulfed by their juvenile horde—although Dana, as Dave notes, is often enough able to disengage herself to run a mysterious errand. Reversing field after Roger Dodger's oily bon vivant, Scott here projects an exquisite discomfort even before he glimpses his wife in the arms of another man. Is this dentist depressed or repressed? Dependable Dave imagines himself nice, nurturing, and put-upon—although Dana lets it be known that she actually finds him unsmiling and scary. Steeped in disgruntled domesticity, The Secret Lives of Dentists sometimes suggests Diary of a Mad Housewife with a male protagonist—and indeed the script provides Dave with a monstrous alter ego, Slater (Denis Leary), inspired by his most obnoxious patient.

Rudolph barely gets away with allowing this imaginary friend, a dissolutely macho trumpet player with a weakness for floral shirts, to hang out chez Hurst, observing family meals and articulating the resentment that is smoldering within Dave's breast. The far-from-cute Hurst children may be as remarkable an ensemble as any in Rudolph's career, but Leary's crass loudmouth serves as the repository for the director's trademark actor-driven "quirkiness." Slater's boisterous appearances undeniably enliven the movie—although given his cartoon contours, it might have made more aesthetic sense to let him live inside the TV set that the Hursts all watch with convincing frequency. Slater's flamboyant presence further enables the crass, porn-fueled fantasies that Rudolph assigns Dave—not to mention the flat burst of Mount Kisco magic realism marring the painfully funny set piece in which the entire family somatizes the tension between Dana and Dave, all simultaneously contracting a violent stomach virus.

Slater provides a distraction from the implicit pain of Dana's yearning to escape the confines of her domestic prison. Unlike the majority of movies in which a thousand digital extras are sacrificed upon the altar of commercial catharsis, The Secret Lives of Dentists gives the impression of acknowledging the existence of garden-variety human suffering. If the movie is less touching than it might have been, it is not because Davis and Campbell are so persuasively cool in their roles. Unlike those in the not dissimilar American Beauty, Dentists' characters are needier than the actors who play them—and therein lies the problem.

As involving as it often is, the movie feels emotionally distant precisely because Rudolph overshadows his other principals by cranking up the volume on Dave's rage. The Secret Lives of Dentists may be more conventionally naturalistic than Smiley's novella in allowing its long-suffering hero to finally vent. However, it's also far less subtle and poignant in failing to modulate his stifled cri de coeur.


A scandal in the Vatican and a Golden Lion winner at Venice, Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters is a purposefully punishing exposé of church-sanctioned slave labor. The movie opens in the early '60s at a wedding outside Dublin, as the local priest provides suitably primitive entertainment; accompanying his singing on the traditional tom-tom-like bodhran, a young woman (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped by her drunken cousin. She tells a friend, and word of the outrage spreads throughout the assemblage; the next morning the victim is rousted from bed and packed off to spend the rest of her life with the Magdalene Sisters.

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