“Coming Around Again”
THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS (Alan Rudolph, USA, 2003)
Early this year, my friend Rod Dreher wrote a vigorous attack on THE HOURS and a Gloria Steinem appreciation thereto, as an apologia for selfishness, applause for walking out on one’s family as a means to “self-actualization.” “A fairytale for contemporary narcissists,” he called it. He also favorably cited a James Lileks bleat about what a dirtbag the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire is for having abandoned his family. “Life is not about always being happy; it’s about doing the right thing,” Rod wrote on the Dallas Morning News’ blog.
Well, here is the anti-HOURS, anti-Hollywood, anti-narcissism movie. And it’s a great film — the somewhat-misleadingly titled THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS. From the title, you’d expect a bizarro comic romp, and the film does give you some of that for a while. But it gradually becomes a serious, dry-eyed and, finally, romantic film about marital love and a husband’s struggles with his suspicions that his wife is cheating on him.
Campbell Scott and Hope Davis play a married pair of dentists, with three daughters, an SUV and another car, one home in the suburbs and another in the country, and all the rest of the setup that might make you think you’re in for AMERICAN BEAUTY. Early on, Scott sees his wife with another man, but not irrefutably cheating. But then he starts having more and more suspicious thoughts through the score of asides, facial looks and “I’ll be home a bit late tonight, dear” moments of daily life. Those suspicions become embodied in a fantasy character played by Denis Leary, a belligerent patient at the film’s start who was on the outs with his wife and wouldn’t get any dental work done until his teeth started to hurt (there’s a lot of metaphor packed away in there, especially considering Scott’s opening voiceover about the strengths and weaknesses of teeth).
Fantasies of unfaithful-spouse-killing has been the subject of comic romps before (as in Preston Sturges’s UNFAITHFULLY YOURS … DENTISTS even has an early scene at an opera), and the fact that DENTISTS plays with two levels of reality in the Leary character and a couple of other scenes may make you think that’s where the film is going. But no. Scott tells Leary that he’s not going to confront her with his suspicions, because “then I have to do something about it.” Hopefully, he says, it’s just a momentary lapse that will pass. Leary taunts him, and the suspicions mount as the film progresses through a nor-especially-eventful plot. There’s a sequence where Scott drives off after a quarrel with Davis over the youngest child and yells at the top of his lungs “fucking bitch!!!” that led me to believe he was going to stray — LAST TANGO IN PARIS starts with a near-identical yell in a similar-looking setting. But no.
Through these sequences, DENTISTS instead shows the romance of routine, what “love” means after sex has worn out its immediate luster. And yes, the title of this entry *is* a Carly Simon reference. Scott and Davis are shown in bed together a few times, but there’s nothing that could qualify as a sex scene (there’s an instantaneous flashback of a quick encounter) or even any particularly sexy clothing or nudity. What “love” means for this couple, and most marriages (I suspect) is the joy-pain of parenthood. There is a lengthy sequence during which stomach flu strikes every member of the family, and it will resonate with anybody who has had a sick child or can remember being one (i.e., all of us, I suspect). And who remembers having his father rush him to the hospital. Scott feels ill himself but still does his best by the varying ill members of the family — gets a little frazzled, fantasizes to the song “Fever,” as the healthy kids make things difficult, as he wipes the vomit off the shoes of the youngest who doesn’t know better, as he takes a daughter to the hospital and stays overnight when the fever hits 105.
In other words, Scott is an almost-unheard of character in Hollywood movies today and someone whom the makers of THE HOURS looked at with contempt (the John C. Reilly character in that movie) — a conventionally loving good husband and father who is happy in his role and who defines himself and his happiness in those terms. DENTISTS is like an American SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (though obviously far lighter in tone, and more immediately “pleasurable”). Or maybe, something more like an American version of one of French director Eric Rohmer’s films, where little in the way of great dramatic events happens, but rather, like Rohmer once said about his own films, it’s less about what people do than what they think about while they do it.
That approach to this movie is why Roger Ebert is wrong in the one criticism he makes against the movie in an otherwise-positive review. The Leary character is necessary as a route into Scott’s mind. What makes the film lifelike is Scott’s taciturn manner; if they were the kind of overpsychologized couple who hashed everything out, yes, Leary would be redundant and mood-breaking. But in a movie that’s all about surfaces and maintaining appearances, there has to be some way to show us what temptations, suspicions, and ill thoughts Scott is resisting.
And this is ultimately why the husband and wife love one another. They *don’t* act on every impulse. Or if they do, they repent. And the other has the grace to forgive unconditionally, without dwelling on the particulars. (Despite the theological language there and my firm conviction that the film follows a Christian template, DENTIST is a secular movie about a secular family.) Instead, “love” for them as with my parents (I had as happy a childhood as my parents could reasonably have provided), is a verb not a subject. Love is the things they do (and don’t do) without thinking, just *because.* Nothing is said between Davis and Scott. They just do. Exactly.
Another part of what made DENTISTS so moving for me, and enhanced its intellectual appeal for me, is that it doesn’t over-romanticize love. Or turn it into *luv* as Peter Kreeft might put it. Scott and Davis have outgrown both *luv* and the original sexual passion that first brought them together, but still they clearly love each other and their children. To the movie’s credit, there is only one, not-very-long scene near the end where they explicitly try to hash things out “in our relationship.” And it’s not psychologizing or therapyizing, it’s a potentially-nasty confrontation. Tempers start to flare, but the children unintentionally (the key point) get in the way. It’s ordinary routine asserting itself over narcissistic explicitness.
Why DENTISTS is so convincing in its portrayal of an ordinary family may lie in the performances given by the children. Davis is good enough; Scott is merely as brilliant as can be expected (he gave *this* performance *and* the greasy, fast-talking ROGER DODGER at more or less the same time); Leary is nothing short of perfect casting — sarcastic, brusque, rude. So far, so expected. But the kids — Gianna Beleno, Lydia Jordan and Cassidy Hinkle — are revelations. They’re not “performers” or Olsens-esque muggers. The youngest (Hinkle) looks about 3, openly prefers her Daddy and slaps both her parents in the face. But the slaps are innocent, and somehow Hinkle knows how to slap like someone who doesn’t know any better, rather than as someone following the script. The elder two girls, meanwhile, know how to be in the room with their parents while paying no attention to them, since they’d rather watch the Powerpuff Girls, or eat their own food, or get absorbed in their own quarrels, even as mommy and daddy are cleaning up after them. There’s a natural, unostentatious quality to them that’s both perfect for DENTISTS and the (blessed) opposite of most child actors who get significant screen time.