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Is ignorance really bliss? Is a person better off not knowing the truth about someone they love, even if knowing that truth might threaten to destroy everything they've come to hold dear? These are questions not easily answered, and they're the questions raised by The Secret Lives of Dentists, an above-average domestic drama that never quite manages to become as incisive as it wants to be. Now available on DVD from Columbia in a very respectable Special Edition, the question remains—is it, like many similar indie dramas, worth discovering for those who missed their chance to catch it in the theater? The answer: for the most part, yes.
Facts of the Case
Campbell Scott (Roger Dodger) and Hope Davis (About Schmidt, American Splendor) play David and Dana Hurst, a pair of married dentists who've carved out quite an idyllic existence for themselves. They have a successful practice, a gorgeous home, and three lovely young daughters (Gianna Beleno, Lydia Jordan, and Cassidy Hinkle).
One night it becomes apparent that all is not well in the Hurst home. Prior to Dana's performance in the community opera, David notices her backstage with another man. He doesn't see the man's face, and there is nothing decisively wrong with their actions. But it is obvious that something is, and has been, going on between them.
This sends David into a tailspin of self-examination and introspection, as he struggles desperately with whether or not to confront Dana about her potential infidelity. And as he finds himself dealing with his repressed anger, he finds the truth about his wife may not be a secret worth knowing.
If nothing else, 2003 was a great, great year for very small movies. Films like Lost in Translation and Whale Rider—pictures that may not have otherwise found an audience—carved out a niche for themselves in the overcrowded Hollywood marketplace. Still, despite the public's general receptiveness for fringe films in 2003, there were a few titles that simply flew too low under the radar to grab the attention of theater audiences, despite solid festival performance and critical praise. The Secret Lives of Dentists, directed by Alan Rudolph (Afterglow), was one such film.
Like most, I missed Dentists during its theatrical run in the summer of 2003 and found myself looking very much forward to its DVD release, where many such small titles usually find their audience. What I found upon finally viewing it was a tiny, enormously (almost too) subtle drama that ends up being easy to like but difficult to love. So many aspects of Dentists—not least of which are the lead performances from Scott and Davis—are so finely tuned and superbly wrought it's a bit surprising to find that, when it's all over, it doesn't really add up to much. It's easy to heap praise upon a merely good film that feels so different from the usual Hollywood blockbuster that it seems like it's the greatest film ever made. But that's all Dentists ends up being—good, nothing more.
As stated before, there are certainly things worth recommending about the film, but it's Davis' performance that really stands out. For all the talk surrounding the great year that indie queen Patricia Clarkson (The Station Agent, Pieces of April) had in 2003, Davis had a much less publicized yet equally good run, appearing first in Dentists and then the hugely praised American Splendor. Here she is supremely adept at portraying a woman who is clearly doing wrong (her infidelity is obvious), yet feels so trapped by her lack of communication with her husband that it's easy to, if not forgive her, at least understand her motivations for straying. There is one single moment in the performance that perfectly encapsulates this, and it's one that's difficult to illustrate in writing. David and Dana have just had their first major explosive argument in the film, and in the calm that follows the storm, David delivers a heartfelt "I love you," to which Dana responds "Yeah, I know." The tone of Davis' voice is one of such exasperating sarcasm masking such deep, underlying pain, that these three little words ring as true as anything else in the entirety of the film. It's devastating stuff.
With Campbell Scott's uniquely deep vocal inflections and inherent stoicism, I can't imagine a better actor for the part of David. The problem, however, is that because of David's repression of feelings and this aforementioned stoicism, he just doesn't make for a very interesting protagonist. Although the story is about the crumbling marriage between these two characters, it's told largely from David's point of view, as he struggles with his own feelings concerning what to do about Dana's infidelity. Because of this, the character has to carry the film. Rather than empathizing with him throughout most of the proceedings, I found myself wanting to smack some sense into him. It's easy to see why David doesn't want to break up the sunny existence he and Dana have made for themselves, but her cheating becomes so painfully obvious that his complacency goes beyond the realm of common sense. Scott is exceedingly good in the part, but he's stuck in what ends up being a thankless role.
The supporting cast is filled out with some strange choices, none stranger than that of comedian Denis Leary, who begins the film as one of David's more obnoxious patients but soon manifests himself as David's conscience, gliding in and out of existence and trying to knock some sense into him. This is a tricky device—requiring Leary to appear onscreen as someone who isn't really there—but it ends up working quite well. How well it works for the viewer, however, is going to depend on their tolerance for Leary as a presence, as he essentially plays himself in every scene he appears. He's a love-him-or-hate-him kind of actor, and your enjoyment of the performance (and, as a result, the film) is going to rest on your threshold for his brand of obnoxiousness. The only other notable supporting performance—aside from the three little girls, who, it must be said, play three little girls remarkably well—comes from Robin Tunney as an assistant in the Hurst's dental office who also ends up manifesting in David's fantasies later on in the film. Unfortunately, Tunney's role is so small she doesn't get a chance to register, and is basically wasted.
The film ends with a confrontation finally having taken place, and a new agreement reached, although not explicitly stated. The last scene, which takes place in the dentists' office, is perhaps the film's most metaphoric moment—one character exposed to the other as openly and nakedly as possible. It's a fitting, perfectly crafted ending to a film that isn't about large emotional outbursts but about the silences that take place in between, which, when all is said and done, I found to be to its detriment. I've never had a problem with films in which very little happens, plot-wise. Hell, I found Lost in Translation to be the best film of 2003, and that's a film in which virtually nothing happens. But whereas that film provided its audience with at least some kind of emotional payoff to its core relationship, Dentists goes the opposite route and keeps things as subtle and non-confrontational as possible. What we're left with is a story that doesn't really say as much as it wants to. There are moments of great emotional profundity in the film, but they're compounded by the filmmakers' reluctance to go the extra mile and put their feelings on the screen. So Dentists ends up only being a solid little drama, when a great one seems to be clawing to get out.
Despite my slightly mixed feelings about The Secret Lives of Dentists, I certainly admire Columbia's decision to give this tiny little film a rather wonderful single-disc Special Edition release. Video is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and generally looks terrific, as one would expect for a film released only a few short months ago. The image is a bit soft at times, and there is some noticeable haloing in a few instances, but it's never distracting, and the source print is virtually spotless. A fine transfer of a great looking film.
Audio is presented in a respectable if not earth-shattering Dolby Digital 5.1. While the track isn't going to wake up any of the neighbors (it's obviously a dialogue-heavy film), I don't imagine anyone will find reason to complain. Subtitles are presented in English for the hearing impaired.
It's in the extras where the Dentists disc really shines. First up is a screen-specific audio commentary with director Rudolph and producer/star Scott. These two, having worked together previously on Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, are obviously great friends. They spend a good deal of the track tossing little barbs back and forth, a few self-deprecating production anecdotes here and there, and occasionally discussing the intention of various moments in the film. It's a chatty track with very few dead patches, and the affection the two men have for each other makes it well worth a listen.
Next up is an installment of The Sundance Channel's brilliant Anatomy of A Scene production, which details the pivotal opera scene that takes place early in the film. The show is more thorough in its examination of the film than any promotional featurette could ever hope to be, featuring interviews with all the principals, including writer Craig Lucas, director Rudolph, and all of the major players in the scene. Like previous installments of the feature, this shows just how much attention to detail must be paid in every single aspect of the filmmaking process. I'm thrilled that DVD producers are now including these episodes on a regular basis and hope they become standard issue on more releases.
Also included on the disc are four Deleted Scenes none which are anything special. It's easy to see why they were cut, as none do anything to really advance the narrative. Annoyingly, the scenes aren't individually selectable, so clicking on them in the menu means having to sit through all four. This is remedied by the fact that they only run a total of four minutes or so.
Finally, we get a throwaway Blooper Reel, trailers for Dentists, and five other Columbia titles.
Despite my somewhat lukewarm feelings for the film, I'd certainly recommend giving Columbia's The Secret Lives of Dentists a rental, in case you missed it in theaters. It features at least one top-shelf performance, some enormously moving moments, and Columbia has seen fit to give the film the Special Edition treatment with good audio, video, and some great extras.
The Secret Lives of Dentists is acquitted on all counts, and Columbia is lauded for giving such a deserving treatment to a tiny film. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Alan Rudolph and Producer/Star Campbell Scott
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