Alan Rudolph’s latest (and greatest, considering his shoddy work of late) is one of the best portraits and marriage and family I have ever seen, largely because it doesn’t soften the blows, nor does it overplay its hand by straying into the ridiculous. Everything we see on screen is not only believable, but all too believable. This is due primarily to Campbell Scott, who emerges triumphant in the role of his career. His David Hurst, successful dentist that he might be, is nevertheless beaten, frustrated, and pissed as hell, but he’s always sympathetic because we all know–or at least suspect–that family life is rarely, if ever, what it is claimed to be, and most often is a living hell. For even if two people connect and find a deep, meaningful love, children come along and ruin the whole fucking thing. That is why unless two people agree from the outset that having children is simply not in the cards, everything they do will be tainted by a pervasive sadness. Yes, we might say, we are happy now, but it will all soon fade away and we’ll spend our days not in conversation or deep contemplation, but on our knees cleaning up vomit or in endless rounds of late night feedings. It’s no different than being told one has pancreatic cancer and only a few months to live.
Rudolph’s The Secret Lives of Dentists, based on a book by Jane Smiley, is much more than a portrait of pain (Smiley’s book was called The Age of Grief for a reason), but this is the theme that resonates when all is said and done. David’s situation is complicated by the fact that his wife Dana (Hope Davis) is having an affair. Again, David’s life would be hell without this extra jolt, but it is this betrayal that puts the entire thing into perspective. Added to that, David is visited by a man named Slater (Denis Leary), who is a disgruntled patient, but also David’s conscience. His appearances are not always “real,” but the voices in David’s head are made flesh by Slater’s sneering, obnoxious presence. Slater has also been jilted and lied to, and he sees it as his responsibility to instruct David in the ways of revenge. With Slater’s help, David is fiery for the first time, giving voice to feelings that should be have aired years before. But now that David and his wife have three young girls, he has turned into an emasculated sap, which is where Slater comes in. His role is to restore David’s manhood.
At bottom, this is a tragic tale, full of regret and the fatigue of its leads, but a dark sense of humor wins out in the end. David is a true Everyman and while he is ultimately responsible for the choices he has made, one can still empathize with anyone who feels let down by the promise of happiness. Perhaps David was naÃ¯ve for believing fulfillment could come from rearing kids, but like far too many, he seems to have never assessed the true costs of giving away his independence, sanity, spare time, joy, and passion for life. The best example of this comes during an extended sequence when, one by one, the entire family comes down with the flu. It was during these moments that I squeezed the hand of my beloved and muttered, “Jesus H. Motherfucking Christ, let’s NEVER have children.” Or something to that effect. I do know this–The Secret Lives of Dentists is, besides being one of the best films of the year, one of the most effective birth control devices yet developed. If this film were shown in sex ed classes rather than those horribly dated filmstrips, I imagine that within one year, teenage pregnancy would go the way of the dinosaurs.