Sunday, March 13, 2011

Underrated Movie #113: The Secret Lives of Dentists

Title: Secret Lives of Dentists
Year: 2002
Director: Alan Rudolf
Writer: Craig Lucas, based on the novella “The Age of Grief” by Jane Smiley
Stars: Campbell Scott, Hope Davis, Denis Leary, Robin Tunney

The Story: Two married dentists share a practice, but he suspects that she’s having an affair... He’s tries to ignore it, but soon he starts imagining that a belligerent patient (Leary, of course) is with him at all times, hectoring him to be more aggressive.

How it Came to be Underrated: This should have gotten some Oscar nominations, but instead it was merely a minor arthouse hit and it hasn’t lingered in the public consciousness. It somehow got lost in the shuffle.

Why It’s Great:

  1. How do you make a movie about conflict avoidance? How can you show something not happening? How do you adapt a novel about someone’s internal debate? This is a textbook example of all the ways to make this work well onscreen, from personifying his anger as a hallucination he can converse with, to showing his fantasies of what could be happening, to flashbacks to better times, to externalizing the family’s internal tensions as projectile vomiting… even a small, just-right amount of judicious voice-over.

  2. It’s hard to make a movie about a mother’s affair that doesn’t demonize her, or women in general for that matter, but Lucas and Smiley, between the two of them, do it admirably. Our sympathies are, of course, with our POV character, but we also see that this is probably more his fault than hers. He mostly just wants a sexual relationship, but she wants a best friend. She gives him sex in return for friendship, but he has slowly withdrawn that friendship, so she starts to fall in love with someone else. He blames her straying on lust but it’s just the opposite. The amazing thing about the movie is that we can see this so clearly even though our POV character can’t.
  3. I’ve given Scott a lot of crap on this blog about one underwritten role, but he’s actually a fantastic actor and this is his ideal showcase that sums him up in three words: aggressively laid back. And how great is Hope Davis always? This is also probably her ideal role: the sweet, normal woman with smouldering sexuality.
  4. Eventually, under the influence of his fever, Scott starts fantasizing about having an affair of his own with his assistant, which is good news for us Robin Tunney fans.
  5. No matter how many movies you see, there are always some directors who just fall through the cracks. Alan Rudolf has had a long and frequently-acclaimed career on the edges of the Hollywood system, and yet he has somehow remained steadfastly off my radar. For some reason, even though I love it, this is the only one of his movies I’ve seen, so I can’t provide the amount of background I normally would, sorry...

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Davis was great on the other side of the fence in Daytrippers, Scott co-wrote and had a fun little role in Big Night.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD with a lively and informative commentary from Scott and Rudolf and an IFC documentary.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Going Steady Can Do Far More Harm Than Good!


Anonymous said...

Check out Choose Me for another fine Rudolph film.

Reel Popcorn Junkie said...

This film boasts some great performances from Scott, Davis and the three young girls who play their daughters. It is slow-going, though.