Life Sentences


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.

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.

This pious workhouse, wherein the inmates save their souls by taking in laundry, is run by the wizened old horror Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), seemingly modeled on the sadistic guard played by Hume Cronyn in Jules Dassin’s yada-yada warden classic Brute Force. Indeed The Magdalene Sisters is basically a women-in-prison movie—in which the innocent prisoners (generally referred to as “hoors”) are isolated from the world and subjected to a hideous, spirit-crushing regime of constant work, continual browbeating, and total degradation. That this system, which effectively enslaved thousands of Irish women into the 1990s, is founded on a mix of gender discrimination and class oppression is made clear by the nature of the other protagonists, an unwed mother (Dorothy Duffy) imprisoned at her father’s behest, and a pretty orphan (Nora-Jane Noone), apparently arrested for being too attractive. The inmates of this particular spiritual gulag include more than a few lifers, as well as several long since driven mad.

Mullan is himself an actor, and The Magdalene Sisters is performed by a dedicated ensemble, although Eileen Walsh’s performance as the all-purpose gibbering crazy is overwrought even by the movie’s neo-Gothic standards. The unrelenting situation is rendered all the more claustrophobic by the many close-ups. The women are physically humiliated by fascistic nuns and abused by predatory priests, but what’s worst is the suffocating atmosphere of hypocritical piety. Late in the movie, the fanatical Sister Bridget confesses her love of the cinema and treats her charges to a screening of The Bells of St. Mary’s. Mullan pans over the assembled Sisters of Mercy raptly watching Ingrid Bergman, with tears streaming down their faces, and then to their charges glaring at the screen with hatred.

The Magdalene Sisters proposes itself as a corrective. Soon after, there’s a scene powerful enough to induce a revolutionary conversion: One of the inmates is unexpectedly set free. This shocker is often shameless, not least in the climactic confrontation with Sister Bridget, but it’s impossible not to be moved by the ending—if only because the torture is finally over.

The most remarkable thing about Claude Lelouch’s And Now Ladies & Gentlemen is its inane self-confidence. The leads in this hokey romantic thriller are Jeremy Irons—as M. Valentin Valentin, gentleman jewel thief and master of disguise—and French chanteuse Patricia Kaas as Jane Lester, French chanteuse of melancholy.

Not as funny as it should be, the movie sets its dramatic table by leisurely juxtaposing Valentin’s brazenly lame modus operandi with Jane’s fey stage act. Bruised by life, the two principals finally meet in a smoky piano bar in Fez, Morocco. She’s singing “What Now My Love,” he’s wondering why, and after that, it’s just one color-cued memory blackout after another. And Now Ladies & Gentlemen also features Claudia Cardinale as an auxiliary dame of mystery, a sample of Moroccan voodoo, and some tasteless racial banter: “I offered him a bright future, he preferred darkness,” Jane says of the trumpet player who ditched her in favor of her African-French best friend. In the course of his escapades Irons gets to dress in drag, wear a hippie wig, and speak French.

I haven’t seen a movie this ridiculous since Sally Potter’s The Man Who Cried—but lacking the austere brilliance of Potter’s mise-en-scène, Ladies & Gents has little to offer beyond muzzy kismet and generalized amnesia, a bit of National Geographic and a lot of cocktail jazz (not forgetting a snatch of the dwabadda-da-da-da-da-da theme from Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman). A pleasant vacation for the cast, no doubt—but not the audience.

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