It's a challenge to make a happening kind of movie about something that isn't happening on camera—and that might or might not even be happening off it. But that's what the director, Alan Rudolph, and the screenwriter, Craig Lucas, have achieved in The Secret Lives of Dentists (Manhattan Pictures International), based on Jane Smiley's brooding, minor-key 1987 novella, The Age of Grief. It's not a flawless adaptation, but it's a gutsy and deeply affecting one: The filmmakers manage to jazz up Smiley's tempo without losing her melancholy tone; and they find a way—without being untrue to the book—to make the stubbornly recessive protagonist seem a dynamo on the screen.
He is David "Dr. Dave" Hurst (Campbell Scott), a bottled-up dentist whose dentist wife, Dana (Hope Davis), might be having a torrid affair. The signs are damning: She's often late getting home for dinner; she takes spontaneous trips to the convenience store that last an hour; and she encourages her husband to drive their three little girls to the country house while she works on Saturday. In both the novella and the film, Dr. Dave doesn't simply avoid confronting the increasingly tremulous Dana about what he thinks is going on: He goes to frantic lengths to keep her from blurting out the truth—which would force the couple to acknowledge the issue and to do some sort of root canal on the marriage. (It's a measure of Smiley's taste that she never resorts to a metaphor like that.)
The novella is an interior monologue—a grasping, occasionally demented, more often doleful meditation on the passing of all things (all things, that is, except teeth, which we're reminded remain intact when the rest of the body is reduced to ash). The nonconfrontational drama is woven through the couple's day-to-day dental practice and family crises, among them a 2-year-old who suddenly won't have anything to do with her mother and a bout of flu that prostrates each member in turn. Smiley is as exhaustingly microscopic about emotions as John Updike is about material things, but without Updike's acid distance. As Dr. Dave reels in psychic pain, Smiley writes (in her protagonist's voice):
When I used to think of the word "confusion," I would think of a kind of gray mist, but that is not what confusion is. Confusion is perfect sight and perfect mystery at the same time. Confusion is seeing without knowing, as if the optic nerves were still attached but the hemispheres of the brain were parted. Desire is confusion vibrating in the tissues.
I dwell on Smiley's novella because of how well Rudolph and Lucas have captured that last phrase: The Secret Lives of Dentists has confusion vibrating in its frames—and vibrating to a weird and sometimes hilariously high pitch, like a theremin. The central vacuum that is the Hursts' marriage might have been treated in a somber, Bergmanesque manner, but Lucas and Rudolph have turned it into a three-ring circus. Over in Ring 1 is the dental practice, with its vacuous chatter during drilling and its sinks of swirling blood. In the second sits the couple's rambling colonial, with the daughters who flit in and out of the frame, each girl making different and distinctive demands. The third ring is fantasy, and that chiefly means Slater (Denis Leary), who begins as a real, bellicose patient, then metamorphoses into Dave's illusory alter ego—his inner lout. Slater is the macho little devil perched on the retiring dentist's shoulder, the one who pushes sensibly for action but only because he lives in the moment, heedless of long-term consequences.
Those Slater sequences, which are much less central in the novella, strike me as too broad and Disneyish, and the film could have used a less cozily familiar wild-man than Leary. Yet these scenes might be the key to the movie's success. They add variety, jokey patter, easy laughs; and they take a lot of pressure off the scenes between Dave and Dana, which can now be as oblique as Smiley conceived them. My favorite of the couple's exchanges comes early in the film, after Dana has performed with her local choir as part of a chorus of Hebrew slaves in a traveling production of Verdi's Nabucco. The opera is where she might have met her maybe lover (Dave catches a glimpse of a man's hand caressing her lightly in the dressing room); and the day after the show closes, she sits in mourning at the breakfast table and announces that she could sing the chorus number ("Va, Pensiero") every night forever. While Dave limply tries to change the subject, she goes on: "It's a waltz. That's what's so tragic. You could dance to it but—but—you can't." At that instant, the distance between Dave and Dana seems so vast that you wonder how they could have inhabited the same emotional universe.
Davis is probably miscast: She's a gorgeous comic actress (especially on stage), but she's most in her element (fogbound, with a hint of hysteria) when the character of Dana is least like herself. But I loved watching her, and I loved the way that Scott's Dr. Dave watches her, too: in terrible focus but from far, far away. Scott disappears into Dr. Dave, but he holds the movie together. He has the morbid edge he honed in last year's Roger Dodger with some of the self-effacing sweetness of Kyle MacLachlan. He seems ready to break out.
There's a blessed combination of talents at work in TheSecret Lives of Dentists. In his plays Prelude to a Kiss and Reckless and his screenplay of Longtime Companion (1990), Lucas took messy subjects and found sharp, clean ways of dramatizing them. Rudolph, in contrast, has cultivated a poetic style that often seems messily, self-consciously complicated. This is textbook good chemistry: Rudolph (and Smiley) goose Lucas into a more expansive realm; Lucas (and Smiley) keep Rudolph's grandiosity in check. It must have been a relief for Rudolph to be freed from his inner imperative to be a master stylist. The movie feels happy in its trimness.
Not everything clicks: Dave's fevered dreams of dental assistant Laura (the adorable Robin Tunney) as a vampy chanteuse are just odd, and the long sequence in which the family is stricken with flu doesn't quite achieve the lucid delirium that the filmmakers must have intended. But even when the movie misses its marks, you can see what it was aiming for and be delighted anyway. The score by Gary DeMichele gooses you past the rough spots: DeMichele uses some sort of electronic instrument to approximate the sound of a dentist's drill, and at times it seems to be keening, plaintively, while the filmmakers drill for fresh nerves.