Film review: 'Secret Lives of Dentists'

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent  |  Aug. 4, 2003 at 6:31 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Aug. 4 (UPI) -- "How can they afford that place?"

How often have you asked yourself that while gaping at the sheer square footage of the homes used in movies and TV shows? Imagine how these vast apartments and suburban homes with 50-foot-wide living rooms must engender envy and resentment in foreign viewers who assume Americans actually live like that.

Compounding the unreality is the tidy emptiness of these supposedly modern American homes. Where's the surly profusion of possessions that litters real rooms in this Age of Costco? How often have we seen on screen that hallmark of 21st century household futility: the living room clogged with perpetually half-assembled closet organizers and modular storage systems?

Refreshingly, in the "The Secret Lives of Dentists," an indie infidelity drama with an unrepresentatively comic name, Allan Rudolph, the veteran art house director of Robert Altman-style ensemble films (such as 1984's charming "Choose Me"), shows us real estate reality.

A married couple, both dentists, and their three little girls dwell in what appears to be a quite nice 2,500-square-foot, four bedroom house stuffed with all the teeming paraphernalia of upper middle class family life.

The result, though, is a cluttered, even claustrophobic-looking movie. There is, it turns out, a fundamental reason why filmmakers rent huge houses and then knock down walls to allow themselves even more expansive camera angles: the bigger and blanker the stage, the more vividly the characters can stand out.

In "Dentists," the husband (played by Campbell Scott of "Rodger Dodger") seems hemmed-in, his manliness encumbered by all the domestic trappings. Nor does it enhance what's left of his aura of masculinity that he and his wife (Hope Davis, who was Jack Nicholson's daughter in "About Schmidt") are equal partners in their dental firm, and that when they get home, he does half (or more) of the housework. The audience, therefore, is less surprised than he is when he glimpses his wife in the arms of another man, perhaps the director of the amateur opera in which she's appearing as a slave girl.

Hoping the affair will peter out before he has to confront her with his awareness, which might doom the marriage, he throws himself into the domestic chores his wife is neglecting.

He lacks leverage. They are equal business partners, and she is the more talented dentist, the one who would wind up with most of the patients if they split. His only gesture of revenge is to invent an imaginary friend, played by comedian Dennis Leary, who gives him cynical (but, sadly, not very funny) advice. (Leary could have improvised better lines than he got in the script.) But the husband is too nice to take a swing at her or shoot his rival. And he cares too much about his children to put them through a divorce.

"Dentists" contrasts sharply with another, far grander cuckoldry drama: Adrian Lyne's lavishly staged "Unfaithful," for which Diane Lane earned a well deserved Best Actress Oscar nomination last winter.

"Unfaithful" wasn't much more realistic than an opera. Lane's young lover, a used book dealer, lived in a Manhattan apartment big enough to host full-court basketball games, while the husband she betrayed was as handsome as Richard Gere.

Still, while movies don't require all the exaggeration and abstraction that operas do, they need some, especially if the script isn't particularly realistic. Rudolph's attempt at filming an honest-looking story of upper-middle adultery is a worthy experiment, but to make the movie worth attending he needed an equally hardheaded screenplay.

Instead, he got Craig Lucas adapting feminist novelist Jane Smiley's 1977 novella "The Age of Grief." Rudolph normally writes his own scripts, but Scott, who owned the rights to the book, wanted him to film unaltered his friend Lucas's screenplay.

As so often happens in feminist-influenced movies, the words don't match the pictures. Scott, who also produced, claimed that the wife falls for another man because her husband is "uncommunicative," but his character hardly has any time to communicate. While she's running around, he cooks all the meals and cleans up all the messes, which only appears to make her more contemptuous of him.

Instead, Rudolph's images subvert the script's conventional explanations with a disturbing idea: the perfect equality of their marriage has sapped the sexual energy from it. Because he has no power over her, she doesn't find him exciting.

"The Secret Lives of Dentists" likewise suffers from an unstimulating distribution of power -- too much is in the hands of Lucas and Scott and not enough in the hands of Rudolph and Leary.

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