A romantic comedy-drama about an endangered marriage, “The Secret Lives of Dentists” is a nicely played study of turbulence beneath the surface of quiet lives that eventually becomes bogged down by overplaying a literary conceit. Focusing on the intimate issues of a couple rather than on group dynamics for a change, director Alan Rudolph achieves fresh as well as humorous insights into family life and strategies for keeping a damaged relationship from expiring. But a tiresome final act proves trying even for viewers well disposed to what’s come before, spelling a likely mixed critical reaction and an uphill struggle to carve out a niche on the specialized circuit.
Establishing a sly, understated tone at the outset that perfectly complements the droll reserve of leading actor and co-producer Campbell Scott, in his second outing with the director after “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle,” Rudolph punctuates the ordinary lives of married fellow dentists David and Dana Hurst (Scott and Hope Davis) with two disruptive events. First, a brash and impudent new patient named Slater (Denis Leary), dissatisfied with some dental work, begins upbraiding David in public before becoming an uninvited alter ego who makes sarcastic comments about the conservative medic’s timid behavior and proffers macho advice about how to deal with domestic crises.
Second, David catches a glimpse of his wife in the arms of another man, leaving him no choice but to conclude that she’s having an affair. Dana’s grouchy despondency and suspicious “errands” further David’s conviction that he’s arrived at “the age of grief” (the title of the Jane Smiley novella upon which playwright Craig Lucas based the screenplay). “I wish she would look at me with desire instead of regret,” David laments of the wife with whom he shares both bed and office.
But rather than confront Dana about her emotional absence and apparent indiscretions, David decides to play a long game in an effort to keep his marriage together. Withstanding barbs from Slater about his wimpiness for not giving his wife the boot and enduring fantasies of Dana getting it on with multiple men, David patiently waits out her complaints and sulky moods in the hope that whatever is going on will eventually burn itself out, that she’ll eventually come to her senses. This evolving, self-abnegating process is quite moving at moments and reps the film’s most effective single element.
The device of Leary’s Slater character neatly offsets any chance for all this to take on the air of noble self-sacrifice. Reminding by turns of Jimmy Stewart’s rabbit friend Harvey and of Woody Allen’s invisible pal Humphrey Bogart in “Play It Again, Sam,” Slater keeps appearing at unexpected times, suggesting to David that he tell Dana “I could kill you” over dinner, which he does to very amusing effect, and generally representing a Mr. Cool who would as soon walk out on an errant wife as he would kiss off a tart after a drunken one-night stand.
Serving to further David’s decision to not act rashly are his three daughters, and the body of the film is dotted by lovely and true evocations of family life; particularly humorous is the youngest girl, a very demanding 2-year-old who wants nothing to do with Mommy and has a penchant for slapping adults.
But it’s the family stuff that also comes to weigh the film down in the home stretch. Just when everything is on the line emotionally, one by one, everyone in the family gets sick, and the sight of David having to clean up waves of vomit and tend to a succession of sweating, feverish females is distinctly unedifying. Perhaps this “sickness” interlude worked on the page as a metaphor for the turmoil afflicting the entire family, but acted out onscreen it’s an aggravating and vastly overextended turnoff.
Scott excels as the mild-mannered dentist who taps into a strain of impressive tenacity under duress. The always watchable Davis has the disadvantage here of playing a woman who’s always sullen and uncommunicative, while Leary has good fun as David’s gadfly and provocateur.
Tech contributions are smooth.