2003 wasn't a particularly great year for film: although there were a few diamonds in the rough (see Kill Bill, The Station Agent, and Lost in Translation), for the most part, mainstream releases were nothing more than glorifications of the Hollywood blockbuster formula. So I suppose it comes as no surprise that Alan Rudolph's terrific film, The Secret Lives of Dentists, practically slipped by unnoticed -- not only by audiences, but by critics and award ceremonies as well. What a shame. While it isn't a spectacular film per se, The Secret Lives of Dentists is a fine example of a film-maker who tried something different and -- for the most part -- succeeded. David (Campbell Scott) and Dana Hurst (Hope Davis) are married dentists trying to form a functional family with their three daughters, and David eventually cracks under the pressure and develops an alter-ego (incarnated by Denis Leary -- not the person I would pick to be MY Tyler Durden, but whatever). The movie is very subtle -- even for an independent picture -- but it works: as the Hursts' marriage gradually crumbles under scrutiny, director Rudolph doesn't hammer us over the head with cliches. David begins to suspect that Dana is having an affair, but unlike other family dramas -- which would boil down the situation to the point where it's just a husband trying to catch his wife in the act --, Rudolph deals with the issue in relation to the rest of David's life, rather than just the present: David can't bring himself to uncover the truth about Dana for fear that it would destroy their relationship (or what's left of it), and so every action he takes is essentially a procrastination of confrontation. While not wise on David's behalf, this is a very smart move for Rudolph. He builds up immense tension throughout the film and only releases enough to keep us from dying of anxiety; by the time it's all over, we feel as if the Hursts' story is still unfinished. Screenwriter Craig Lucas (who adapted the script from a novel by Jane Smiley) has created two characters that have a life beyond the restraints of the film's running time, and he has done it masterfully. His script is marvelously low-key, making us laugh at the most unlikely moments and moving us in unexpected ways. Campbell Scott is equally slight in his performance, creating a passive-aggressive character we can't help but sympathize with, but Hope Davis (who received an Independent Spirit Award nod for the film) is the true standout: she brings her grace and complexity to a role that we might have otherwise seen as an enemy to the protagonist. Leary plays himself, so whether or not he's good is purely dependent on the viewer, but the least you could say is that he picked a decent movie for once. Add a wonderfully bizarre soundtrack (featuring a unique rendition of the Velvet Underground's "I Found a Reason" by Cat Power) and Rudolph's quirky direction, and you have an unexpected winner of a film. As I said before, The Secret Lives of Dentists isn't a great movie, but it's something perhaps even better: noteworthy. Either way, the next time I go to get my teeth cleaned, I won't be able to keep myself from wondering what my dentist does on the weekends.
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