Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 29, 2003 12:04 pm 
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Location: California/NYC
Sickroom realism

Alan Rudolph had a run in the early Eighties –- Choose Me, Songwriter, Trouble in Mind -— that made you want to see anything he did. Then came some grating efforts -— Made in Heaven, The Moderns, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle -— that cancelled out much of the attraction. His new movie, The Secret Lives of Dentists, has pieces of both Alan Rudolphs, the splendid one and the annoying one. But since it stars Hope Davis, who was so sharp in About Schmidt, and Campbell Scott, who seemed on a roll with Roger Dodger, you had to want to see Rudoph’s latest effort.

Scott and Davis play a pair of married dentists, David and Dana Hurst, who met in dental school, which for them was more romantic than it sounds, and now share three young girls and a joint practice. The movie is about the distance that’s grown up between an American couple too professionally interrelated, too busy with shared family duties, too mired in the great deadener of routine, to find the aloneness in which their own relationship once bloomed. They love each other but they’ve forgotten how to show it; they’ve lost the spark. She admits she finds him unsmiling and scary; he has reasons to distrust her.

After a dental overture, David sees Dana kissing a man before an opera she’s in the chorus of —- which he then watches in the audience with their three daughters: there’s a clear sense that you can’t escape from anything, though as the days go by, Dana disappears for a mysterious errand every so often, with obvious implications that David doesn’t want to investigate, because he’s afraid Dana will choose an unknown other man over him and their marriage. And his life, he well knows, is all about that marriage. But like some others whose lives are all about other people, he’s curiously distant and selfish.

There’s a patient from hell, Slater (Denis Leary), who comes for an appointment with Dana but gets a filling from David, which at the opera he publicly announces has fallen out. This may seem a strange way to bond, but Slater hereafter becomes David’s fantasy misogynistic alter ego, an invisible presence like the giant rabbits in Donnie Darko or Harvey. Slater is a jazz trumpet player who’s half Willem Dafoe and half Chet Baker and a total nervy discontent who continually urges David to dump his marriage. Was he always a fantasy, or is he just crudely drawn in his first couple of scenes? Hard to say. Slater is the quirky Alan Rudolf at work, but not quite working.

The body of the film is the five days when flu runs through the Hurst family and David does all the caretaking, even when he’s physically sickest and mentally most desperate over the state of the marriage. This concentrated, relentless sequence is a unique mixture of tedium and wonderment that’s Alan Rudolph at his best and worst. After all members of the family have recovered from this patient ordeal, Dana disappears for 24 hours. When she returns and says she’s staying not going, David smashes a few things in the dining room and the crisis is over. The final scene which then follows, a surreal coda that like Slater’s appearances is perhaps pure metaphor, shows Dana in the dental chair and David checking her teeth. It’s an odd way to end a movie, but maybe not so odd for the Drs. Hurst.

I thought of my own dentist, whom I happen to like very much. Dentistry is so surreal in this movie, even in the most specifically dental scenes: but would any of it nonetheless seem real, or accurate, to a genuine practitioner, to the man who takes care of my teeth? I don’t know, but I wish there were a bit more about the silly and painful details of the dental experience in The Secret Lives.

What makes this feel like an Alan Rudolf movie isn't entirely easy to explain. Partly for sure it’s the fantasy trumpet player whose performing interludes are happily brief (would that the operatic passage were so). Perhaps also it's the odd presence of a young black pediatrician who thinks all the family illnesses are psychosomatic, even when they've got fevers over a hundred. Certainly it’s the the sheer insane, audacious length of the flu episode, with Campbell Scott running up and down stairs and fever and vomiting and the doling out of ginger ales and “It’s OK’s” ad infinitum, not to say ad nauseum.

Alan Rudolph is a keen student of disintegrating relationships, and his talent for that subject isn’t wasted here, but his movies in the good old days used to be slightly naughty fun, and the trouble with this one is that at times the obvious analogy holds: it does begin to seem a bit like a root canal. The action is so unspectacular at best that it has a tendency to feel slight and drawn out, and too often (in David Hurst’s dental euphemism) it “pinches.”

Nonetheless Hope Davis and Campbell Scott’s performances are marvels of hot/cold restraint, and when the three little girls (Gianna Beleno, Lydia Jordon and Cassidy Hinckle) are interacting with each other, they are as charming and as real as can be. Scott is so immersed in the flu sequence, picking up girls and cleaning up messes and assigning chores, that you almost forget it’s a movie.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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