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Molar Better Blues: Campbell Scott plays a dentist with a straying wife (Hope Davis) in Alan Rudolph's new film.

The Drill Is Gone

A marriage festers like a cavity in Alan Rudolph's 'The Secret Lives of Dentists'

By Richard von Busack

EVEN THE BEST writers are nagged at 3am by the feeling of being parasites. Sensing this guilt so keenly, you can only imagine the way other professions must writhe in the clutches of insomnia: dentists, for example. It used to be claimed--incorrectly but convincingly--that they had a high suicide rate. The urban legend persists because, in low moments, you can imagine that a dentist might think of himself as a human version of a remora.

Shunned until the last moment, considered a pain inflictor, the dentist is misunderstood. No one thinks of the physical stress of craning to get all the plaque left behind by lazy flossers or the serious risk of being bitten.

In the movies, the profession provides perfect subjects for murder: Joe Mantegna's philandering dentist in Compromising Positions or Steve Martin's sadistic dentist in Little Shop of Horrors. Thus the coy title of the new movie The Secret Lives of Dentists promises an evening of bad dinner-theater farce so clearly that you can practically smell the chicken a la king.

Yet director Alan Rudolph, working from a script by Craig Lucas, based on Jane Smiley's novella The Age of Grief, makes the film a sharp-toothed study of a marriage on the shoals. It's about the fear and rage inside one smooth, civilized dentist, David Hurst (Campbell Scott), and his wife and partner in a thriving dental business, Dana (Hope Davis).

Scott, who goes through the film somewhere between bumbling and puttering, is a tall actor, with that wrathful forehead he inherited from his late father, George C. Scott. Here he wears a mustache that softens his features. And Hurst has fathered an entire family that drains his energy: a trio of unruly girls. (Cassidy Hinkle, who plays one of the daughters, the young Leah, is free of the preciousness that curses kid actors.) One of the reasons the Hursts (one letter away from "hurts") can't talk about what's going on in their marriage is that there's so much family in their way.

Dana's sudden fascination with opera has got her onstage at the community theater as a spear carrier. (The theater is the rehabilitated Music Box, an art deco classic in Westchester, N.Y.) David catches Dana unawares, espying her standing a little too close to some indistinct figure. In the days following the show's closing, she grows more withdrawn, showing the signs of straying. The wire that runs though The Secret Life of Dentists is whether she's cheating or not and, if so, with whom.

Rudolph, who's primarily a comic director, could have caricatured the Hursts and the material richness of their lives, all shot in appealing blue-grays and cream colors: their minivan, their Colonial-themed home in this prosperous suburb and their cabin in the forest. But there isn't a lot of repose in the film.

First work, then illness, keeps these five hurling through their lives. A bad flu shakes up every member of the family; like the close family they are, they can all count on a dose of it. And between cleaning up the ill children and being fever struck, the mysteriousness of the wife's situation increases. This part of the plot seems to bother those who don't care for the film, as if David is too much of a wimp to open up a can of worms by grilling his wife.

This actress named Hope has become a key performer of despairing parts. This is a tricky perch for an actress. Thankfully, Davis is no Sandy Dennis; she always shows us an ornery streak that keeps her from being too frail. (She plays a passive-aggressive hellion in the upcoming American Splendor.) Like so many petite women, she possesses an iron will, and her husband is a little afraid of her.

David is caught between her and a phantom of his own id. The imaginary figure is the afterimage of an obnoxious patient named Slater (Denis Leary), an unshaven jazzbo with a flat hat and a leather jacket. This macho man inside David roasts him for not arguing the truth out of his wife.

The Secret Lives of Dentists takes an uncommon look at marriage. It compares with Unfaithful the way a John Cheever short story compares with a soap opera. Rudolph is best known for his intoxication with the romantic state, with mysteries that are about how love fogs the mind. There's a mystery here, but there's nothing misty about it; this is probably the most urgent film Rudolph has ever made.

The Secret Lives of Dentists (R; 105 min.), directed by Alan Rudolph, written by Craig Lucas, based on the novella by Jane Smiley, photographed by Florian Ballhaus and starring Campbell Scott and Hope Davis, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the July 31-August 6, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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