The Spanish Prisoner
About Schmidt
Next Stop Wonderland

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THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS

NOTE: Another great spoiler/review sent in by cmzapffe.

Dentistry is one of those careers, I suppose, that everyone not connected to the profession assumes that most people in it must be very unhappy people, as who in their right mind wants to spend all day long poking around the bloody mouths of other people, most of whom are total strangers? I will have to ask my dentist if this is an unfair and stereotypical view of his profession, but "The Secret Lives of Dentists" takes this premise and squares the misery in a story about two married dentists who run into career, marital, family, and health problems all at once.

Their lives should be idyllic as they have captured what most others consider to be the American dream, but it isn't and they are two very unhappy people. David is not enjoying his profession as much as he used to, he suspects his wife of having an affair with another man in the local opera company where she sings in the chorus, and the whole family suffers through a bout with the flu during the course of this film.

Hope Davis ("About Schmidt," 2002, "Hearts in Atlantis," 2001) is on course to break out in her film career of starring mostly in small marvelous "indies." Not a typically beautiful Hollywood type of woman, she is instead a character actress and has an appearance that most people would call "pretty" or "interesting," as she has a rather sharp face and an aquiline nose. I have been a fan of hers ever since I saw her in "Next Stop, Wonderland"(1998), one of those small, overlooked gems of a romantic comedy that ought to be required viewing for everybody.

Both she and Campbell Scott ("The Spanish Prisoner," 1997) bring every tortured nuance to a marriage in crisis in this movie. This is great acting offset by the painful reality of every day living and working and kids vomiting everywhere when everyone in the family comes down with the flu.

Other than a few laughs credited to the general craziness of familial living, the one humorous turn that this movie does take is in Dr. David Hursts' fantasizing about his patient from hell, a nearly divorced bachelor named Slater (Denis Leary). After an initial very embarrassing run in with Slater, this man, whom Hurst somehow considers to be the epitome of "cool," lives on in his mind as an egotistical, cynical commentator of his sad, emasculated situation. Slater dispenses advice at every turn, in spite of the fact that he has failed at marriage himself. On that point this movie assumes a somewhat Walter Mitty-esque quality.

"The Secret Lives of Dentists" is a strange title that I find to be rather annoying and slightly unethical as it promises much more than the film delivers. The title has to give any normal person the incorrect assumption that something salacious, something hidden, about the otherwise unattractive lives of dentists will be proffered. No such luck, unless one enjoys watching a family in crisis now sick with the flu as they have to clean up their vomit before one of the other kids walk through it. If the title is instead meant to be satirical, then I missed the point.

This is a movie for those cinematic junkies who thrive at seeing actors bring exceptional characterizations to the roles they inhabit. This is also a movie of almost unmitigated pathos, which will be a turnoff for most of those who are otherwise lovers of quality cinema, but who do not need any more grief in their own lives. For me, a "Grade B" rating and a neutral recommendation.

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Drs. David and Dana Hurst (Campbell Scott and Hope Davis) share adjoining dental offices in a small office building in a small Eastern town. They met and fell in love while in dental school, and now have three young daughters, a lovely older home in a leafy suburb, and a small cabin in the woods for their quiet weekend getaways.

They work in adjoining offices in a small suburban office building. A man named Slater is David's first patient of the day. He is a jazz musician who is going though a bitter divorce and is happy to claim the payment for a dental filling that had been promised by his ex during better times. David has the capable Laura (Robin Tunney) as a dental assistant. Her very admiring, even worshipful, glances at him seem to promise her desire for more than a professional relationship, but this never comes to fruition. In any event, David is blind to her unspoken overtures.

The Hurst's marital roles are somewhat reversed in this movie, as Dana is the more professional, and most likely the smarter of the two, while her husband just loves to spend time with his three daughters. He is very good at being a dad while Dana lacks the patience to be a good parent.

While their relationship at work is friendly in a business-like manner, it is when they get home that we observe that something is wrong. Dana wants pillow talk and David pretends to be asleep. David tells Dana he loves her, and she doesn't respond. Here is a marriage in crisis and neither parent knows how to break the ice to address the issues that threaten their relationship.

She is driven as a professional and finds that she needs fulfillment beyond career and motherhood and turns to singing in the chorus of a local opera theater company for a creative outlet. Her one evening performance in Verdi's' Nabucco is coming up and she spends the week before humming the choral tunes and extolling the virtues of opera to her family.

One of her daughters gives Dana a rabbit's foot for good luck on the evening of the opera, but she accidentally leaves it behind in the car. David runs after his wife to give it to her, but she has disappeared backstage at the community theater. He almost catches up to her, but quickly stops short in shock as he spies her in a glowing, animated discussion with someone behind a door. It is clear to David, who has never experienced this rapturous attention from Dana all during their marriage, that she must be involved with this man. He leaves with the rabbit's foot in his hand without seeing who was the object of Dana's rapt attention.

The evening only gets worse as Slater, his dental patient from that morning, also happens to be attending the opera. Seeing that Hurst is sitting a few rows behind him, he stands up and publicly proclaims to the audience that David Hurst is a lousy dentist as his filling has just fallen out. He holds it up in his hand while the audience looks around in embarrassment. His two older daughters also look at this with the confused look of kids seeing something very unpleasant but not quite understanding what it is all about.

Fortunately the theater soon darkens and the curtain rises. David in the company of two of his beloved daughters spends the evening watching as his wife and their mother, disguised in a long, flowing black wig, sings in the chorus with obvious animation and enjoyment.

Being the decent person that he is, the next morning morning David secretly presses the good luck charm into Dana's hand just as the children inquire about it. Dana is in a dark mood as she is no longer able to live off the high of her operatic performance. No longer humming tunes from Nabucco, she spends the next few days moping around the house.

Dana's trips to the grocery store start to take hours longer than expected, and then she starts staying late at work. Each time she nonchalantly walks in the door far later than had been expected as if nothing was out of the ordinary. One evening she suggests that David drives his three daughters up to their vacation cabin for a long weekend. Protesting that he has a morning appointment, Dana offers to cover for him with this patient.

The three girls are all going through relationship problems and are constantly squabbling with each other. Worse yet, Leah (Cassidy Hinkle), their youngest daughter, is experiencing an Oedipal complex as she worships her dad and resents her mother. Her solution to every situation is to slap the person nearest to her, even her dad, which proves to be very annoying to everyone.

Communication has never been one of his strong points, and the tension of late between the two troubled spouses is beginning to wear him down. David fears confronting his wife with his strong suspicions that she is having an affair. He is not one to create a scene, and, furthermore, he loves her too much and is deeply fearful that bringing his suspicions out in the open will cause her to leave him. David starts to retreat into his own little fantasy world where Slater sits invisibly nearby during each family crisis and offers advice on how he should have handled the situation "like a man."

Even though their family doctor, Dr. Danny (Kevin Carroll), keeps telling the Hursts that nothing is wrong with their kids, they still find child rearing to be less than satisfactory at the moment. This is especially so for David as Dana seems to be around less and less for supportive help.

Still, the issues between them fail to be addressed and then David falls asleep on the ground while outside one night up at the cabin. Waking up the next morning, he has a fever and he feels like he is coming down with the flu. They drive home where David's case of the flu blossoms into its full glory and Dana has to carry on their practice without him.

Like all other families, the flu migrates around to one another just as the former patient is recovering. First one daughter, then another, come down with the flu. Each is sick in her turn and all require a constant diet of soda and crackers. His feeding efforts are usually for naught as all the food soon ends up as vomit on the floor anyway. Dana is the last to come down with the flu, and she takes it worse than the others. Perhaps this is because she is missing out on doing something else with someone else.

Shortly after Dana recovers she doesn't come home one night. Just doesn't show up. No telephone call, nothing. The next morning she shows up with a few bags and David is now forced to address their marital situation.

"Is there somebody else?"
"Yes."
"Is it the man who directed the opera?"
"Yes."
"Do you want to stay married to me?..."

"Yes," Dana replies in a quiet voice of resignation. David is surprised by this. Dana looks tired and drained, like she lacks the will to fight anymore. But for David, this is enough. Enough to start moving on again, enough to start working at life once again, enough to work at hope once again. He doesn't need the full story as he realizes that Dana will probably never be fully satisfied with her lot in life, but, all things considered, she seems to have arrived at the realization that being married to David with their three lovely daughters really isn't all that bad.

Maybe something bad happened to her last night that helped her to change her mind, but David doesn't need to know what. That she has made a decision to stick with him is enough for him---------------------

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