ARRIVING AT THE AGE OF GRIEF 

 
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Dana (Hope Davis) and Dave (Campbell Scott) share a ride on a bike in The Secret Lives of Dentists. Courtesy photo
'The Secret Lives of Dentists' is a revealing examination of conjugal cavities

Drs. David and Dana Hurst, the dentists on whose secret lives director Alan Rudolph performs root canal surgery, have been husband and wife for 10 years. The pair fell in love in dental school and now share a successful private practice, three young daughters, and a comfortable suburban existence in Westchester. David (Scott) tells Dana (Davis) that he has attained everything he has ever desired, while Dana, an amateur soprano, still seems to harbor unfulfilled longings. Might there be more to yearn for than the daily drill of mother, wife, and dentist? Moments before Dana appears on stage as part of the chorus of Hebrew slaves in a production of Nabucco, Giuseppe Verdi's grand opera of emancipation, David thinks he spies his wife in an adulterous embrace. He also tries to deny what he thinks that he sees.

Shaped by memories, fantasies, and David's voiceover commentary, The Secret Lives of Dentists is the internal monologue of a man who states: "I am 38 years old, and it seems to me that I've arrived at the age of grief." Conscientious in his responsibilities as tooth doctor, papa, and spouse, David, who enjoys Brussells sprouts and believes that "patients can't be trusted with their own teeth," is compelled to confront the flaws in what he chose to embrace as domestic bliss. Ordinarily laconic and reserved, he is reluctant to force an issue, preferring a state of ambiguous possibility over dismal certainty.

The Secret Lives of Dentists
Dir. Alan Rudolph; writ. Craig Lucas, based on a novella by Jane Smiley; feat. Campbell Scott, Hope Davis, Denis Leary, Robin Tunney, Peter Samuel (R)
Challenging Dana with his suspicions of infidelity would be much harder for the dentist than pulling teeth, except that he is goaded into motion by a comic demon, an abusive, scuzzy, deadbeat patient named Slater (Leary). In David's overwrought imagination, cynical Slater imposes himself as a household familiar, in the Hursts' kitchen, their country retreat, even their bedroom, proclaiming to the pater familias that "Marriage is impossible, David." A trumpeter by trade, he is an agent of the epiphany that "The cup of pain must come around, cannot pass from you, and it is the same cup of pain that every mortal drinks from."

The quotation appears in The Age of Grief, a 1988 novella by Jane Smiley from which screenwriter Craig Lucas adapted The Secret Lives of Dentists. Although Lucas dropped that line from his script, the film, whose opening credits appear over the image of X-rays, is an intricate anatomy of subcutaneous emotions and what passes for happiness in a culture of affluence. It is a delicate exercise in mood and perception, a tone poem that seems inflated into feature length. Except for a five-day domestic crisis in which each member of the Hurst family in turn succumbs to the flu, the film is thin on incident. About an hour into the proceedings, after probing the conjugal cavities of David and Dana Hurst, The Secret Lives of Dentists begins to lose its bite. •


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