Indie drama in the minty-fresh world of dentistry

Let’s face it: No one likes going to the dentist. Think about everyone you know. I have never met a single person who treated a visit to the dentist with the mildest bemusement, let alone anyone who would even bother to feign excitement.

However, Alan Rudolph’s “The Secret Lives of Dentists,” a thoughtful, tight and at times extremely clever film, is a fortunate exception to that rule. Though its tense mood can make it uncomfortable to watch and its needless tangents cause the film to lose focus, “Dentists” stands as a beautiful and strangely lyrical view on married life. It is an unconventional film and one that critics and movie elitists love to call an “indie gem.” It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and follows a tried-but-true indie formula: cast someone with a recognizable name but no active career (Denis Leary, in this case) alongside two respected actors who act almost exclusively in independent productions (Hope Davis and Campbell Scott).

Based on the short novel “The Age of Grief” by Jane Smiley, “Dentists” tells the story of David and Dana Hurst (Campbell Scott and Hope Davis), two people who share a marriage, three children and a profession. But from the onset, one can see the rupture in their lives: Dana has taken a small part as a virgin in a production of Verdi’s “Nabucco,” while David spends most of his time occupying himself with their three young daughters. His illusion of happiness is shattered when he finds out that Dana is having an affair. From that point on, the film’s perspective shifts, and we see both what David is seeing around him and what is going on in his head.

In the midst of the affair, Slater (Leary), a disgruntled former patient of David’s, starts popping up in David’s imagination, making snide comments about his family life and urging David to stand up to his wife and break from his ennui. Slater eventually becomes something of a “devil on David’s shoulder,” adding an additional dimension to the film. Their dialogue makes for an entertaining set of one-liners and subtle hints at David’s darker side, a side that brims with latent anger and frustration, played to perfection by Scott. A veteran of films with mixed reviews like “Roger Doger” and “Singles,” as well as the underrated David Mamet thriller, “The Spanish Prisoner,” Scott is the glue that holds “Dentists” together. He is gifted with a certain brand of old-Hollywood stoicism, and his soft-spoken portrayal of David presents us with a spectrum of restrained emotions. His deadpan delivery of lines, evoking both laughter and pity from the audience, tighten many of the less-focused scenes. The film could easily devolve into chaos when the entire family catches the flu, leaving David as the only one healthy enough to take care of everyone, but somehow Scott manages to navigate through the scenes and the situation with poise.

At the same time, Davis, Scott’s on-screen foil, does not pale in comparison. While her performance is more subdued than in films like “The Daytrippers” and “About Schmidt,” she keeps up with the uneven pacing of the film, playing off Scott with amazing ease. Davis underplays her role as instigator quite beautifully, and the fact that Shepard shows much more of David’s mind than Dana’s only makes her character more intriguing.

Craig Lucas’ script, though competent, is helped enormously by the quality of the on-screen talent. The plot unravels in a sometimes truncated manner, with the little asides of David’s brain overpowering plot development. The script is clever enough to keep the audience amused, but pointed enough to successfully set the characters against the backdrop of a crumbling dream, an illusion that seems to be disappearing all too easily.

The parallels to “Nabucco” are perhaps too esoteric, but the general quality of the dialogue and the ideas expressed in them seem inspired, if not very original. The story of a marriage on the rocks with kids that are impossible to handle is almost a cliché; however, there is enough originality in the script to warrant this re-telling. Rudolph and his production designer complement Lucas’ bittersweet script with an eye-pleasing visual concept; a plethora of blacks and blues, along with the occasional soft focus, give the film a clean, sterile look. This is, after all, a story about dentists, though the chaos on-screen and the rare child-vomiting seem more absurd with the added sleekness of Shepard’s agile camera maneuvering and editing.

However, this stylistic decision comes at a price. Some scenes seem slow and the flow between them is often disrupted. There are also several times where you can see the boom mike from the top of the screen, but these instances are hardly noticeable and do not detract from the action. The opera music in the beginning helps raise the stakes of “Dentists” early on, but the remainder of the film suffers from a lack of adequate accompaniment.

This is all nit-picking; on the whole, “Dentists” is a highly rewarding (if not easy to watch) film that features some of the best performances of 2003. It is worth the ticket price alone to see Scott’s truly exceptional portrayal of a character that is anything but exceptional. “Dentists” is somber without losing its sense of humor, a difficult tone to achieve, and delightfully harrowing, thanks to Rudolph’s slick direction. Who would have thought a trip to the dentist would be so entertaining?

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