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Treating decay with boredom


Beginning with its title, which promises something quirky and unusual, the new movie from Alan Rudolph depends upon a number of deceptions, intended or not, that may fool the public (as, judging by the superlatives in the advertisements, they have already fooled the reviewers) into actually paying money to see it. Rudolph himself has spent a career winning critical tributes for a series of relatively ambitious but generally messy and pretentious films that often display the sort of ponderous artiness that just charms the hell out of certain critics. The inchoate and diffuse Welcome to L.A. and Choose Me typify the content and style of his earlier work, while the relentless and misguided literariness of The Moderns and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle demonstrate his tendency toward a kind of stuffy and bogus academic intellectualism.

            In his new film, The Secret Lives of Dentists, Rudolph abandons the vagueness and disorderliness of his earlier work for a modest, unified situation, an essentially stationary plot, a small cast of characters, and a tightly controlled structure. This apparent movement in a new direction, unfortunately, amounts to a step backward, resulting in a curiously dull and static picture about a troubled marriage. It is a work with little more substance and complexity than an extended soap opera or one of those made-for-TV movies. From its unfortunate and silly title to its ultimate resolution, the film remains essentially in one place, fixed in a sort of emotional concrete throughout.

            That title, which promises something comical and naughty, like one of those tiresome, entirely unfunny French sex farces, actually describes one of those stories of suburban bourgeois angst that congest the airways and fill the spaces between the advertisements in the slick magazines. Campbell Scott, an actor Rudolph has used in the past, plays David Hurst, a successful dentist in practice with his wife Dana (Hope Davis). They live in a comfortable house with their three young daughters in some pleasant locale, drive the appropriate sport utility vehicle, own a cabin in the country, and apparently share the fruits of the good life, American upper-middle-class variety. When not drilling and filling, David helps out a great deal with domestic chores and Dana sings with a local opera company.

            The story focuses almost entirely on David, who narrates much of the action in an interior monologue, often accompanied by a montage of flashbacks and fantasies. He begins the picture with a disquisition on teeth, accompanied by illustrations, mentioning especially their permanence on the one hand, and their vulnerability to decay on the other, which prepares the way for an exploration of the cavity in his marriage. He discovers his wife is engaged in a love affair, apparently with the music director of the opera company, which becomes the central fact of the motion picture, around which its slight plot revolves.

            Most of the movie consists of David's internal reaction to his discovery, shown in memory and dream, while he continues his daily professional and domestic life. In many of those sequences David carries on a series of imaginary conversations with a particularly obnoxious patient named Slater (Denis Leary), who sneers at the dentist's passivity and weakness, advises him on the appropriate conduct in the matter, behaves boorishly, and offers a possibility of escape from the whole unhappy mess. As David's fantasies expand in number and complication, Slater becomes increasingly the dentist's alter ego, an expression of his own repressed emotions, some other version of the self he could have been and might possibly still be.

            The movie situates itself so firmly within the domestic life of its people that it soon becomes virtually motionless, endlessly repeating its scenes of the whole family eating, with the couple conspicuously avoiding any real confrontation and the children, sensing the tension, sporadically misbehaving. When the whole family comes down with the flu, the audience is treated to those meals all over again in reverse, so to speak (The Secret Lives of Dentists does more for nausea than Jean Paul Sartre). All that eating and all that throwing up, in fact, ultimately occupies more screen time than any other single activity in the picture, which should give some idea of the boredom and vacuity of the whole work.

            From Edgar Allan Poe's "Berenice" to Frank Norris's McTeague (transformed into Eric Von Stroheim's famous Greed) to the recent Novocaine, dentists seldom fare well in literature and the cinema --- David's patient Slater tells him how much everybody hates them --- and even their allegedly hidden selves turn out to be quite dull and, well, extremely dental. Watching The Secret Lives of Dentists hurts less than some treatment with those Torquemada instruments, but creates a numbness rather like a shot of novocaine. Alan Rudolph's earlier works --- those phony, sloppy, confused stories --- actually seem a good deal more interesting than this rare instance of discipline and control, which manages only a little more appeal than a visit to the dentist.

The Secret Lives of Dentists, starring Campbell Scott, Hope Davis, Denis Leary, Robin Tunney, Gianna Beleno, Cassidy Hinkle, Lydia Jordan, Jon Patrick Walker; based on The Age of Grief by Jane Smiley; written by Craig Lucas; directed by Alan Rudolph. Pittsford Plaza Cinema.