“The Secret Lives of Dentists” is adapted from a Jane Smiley novella called “The Age of Grief,” a title that says a lot more about what we’re dealing with here. The protagonist, a dentist named David Hurst (Campbell Scott), says he’s reached the age of grief, which he says is 38. That’s when your life — your family, your career, everything — has been established enough for you to love it dearly, to love it enough to grieve when fate intervenes and disrupts it.
The love of David’s life is his wife Dana (Hope Davis), whom he met in dental school and with whom he shares a practice now in upstate New York. They have three young daughters, a nice house in town and a charming cabin in the country. Their life is quiet and uneventful, even dull (they’re dentists, after all) — and utterly pleasant that way. It’s an enviable existence.
Then, the night Dana is performing in an amateur production of Verdi’s “Nabucco,” David sees her backstage kissing another man. He doesn’t know who the man is, but there’s no mistaking the nature of the kiss.
David is shocked. His response is not to respond. He does not confront Dana. Either he cannot bear to discuss it with her because he cannot bear to have it confirmed, or perhaps he simply doesn’t know what to say. In any event, he goes about his normal life — tries to, that is, while plagued with paranoid daydreams about Dana’s secret life, about where she is when she’s not with him, about what will become of their cozy nuclear family.
Throughout this, David’s constant companion is a figment of his imagination. It’s a patient of his, Slater (Denis Leary), an especially unruly gentleman whose blunt demeanor is the opposite of David’s gentility. As such, he makes a perfect alter ego, someone to hang around David’s brain and spur him on to action.
In my estimation, Campbell Scott should be on the short list for Academy Award nominees for his deceptively low-key performance here. David is quietly, calmly devastated by his suspicions of Dana’s infidelity, and his way of dealing with it — the continued devotion to his family, childishly ignoring Dana one night, entertaining sick, masochistic fantasies about his being ousted — adds up to a fantastically nuanced, deep performance. Watch him in another film — “Roger Dodger” and “The Spanish Prisoner” being his two best — and compare those characters to David Hurst. Same artist, maybe, but different colors. This is a brilliant performance, with hints of humor, rage and agony all lurking around the edges.
Directed by long-time indie filmmaker and Robert Altman protege Alan Rudolph, “The Secret Lives of Dentists” is an extraordinarily insightful, thought-provoking film. It deals with relationships generally, marriage specifically, and should give anyone who’s ever been involved with anyone else cause for reflection.
A- (1 hr., 44 min.; )