Hitting a Nerve

'The Secret Lives of Dentists' portrays life's difficult moments with a dose of humor.

The torturous mind games afflicting a suspicious spouse make for a funny if uncomfortable film in The Secret Lives of Dentists, a movie that showcases excellent performances from Campbell Scott and Hope Davis, while finally showing what to do with the great Denis Leary.

Dr. David Hurst (Scott) is a successful dentist who shares a practice with his wife, Dana (Davis). While David has settled into his existence as a purveyor of mortal pain to the masses, Dana seems a little restless and distant. She has a strange obsession with a locally produced opera in which she has a small role. The opera is providing an escape route into a fantasy life of art and music, away from her daily routine of spit and pulverized molars.

After dropping off Dana for her debut performance, David sees her backstage in a questionable embrace with an unidentified male. Is she cheating? Could she possibly throw away the sanctity of marriage for some low-rate opera guy? He returns to his seat and their three little girls, only to be accosted by Slater (Leary), a cantankerous former patient who brandishes a filling that fell out shortly after David gave it to him. Everything sacred in his life might be collapsing, which starts to touch off some strange hallucinations in David's head.

Director Alan Rudolph's film owes a little to the similarly titled The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a James Thurber story turned into a Danny Kaye film in which the protagonist staged elaborate fantasies in his head to escape the dreary routine of everyday life. David's hallucinations are sometimes a little more X-rated than the family-friendly Mitty's. (At one point, David pictures Dana in a dentist-chair three-way with her patient and assistant.)

As questions and doubt start to arise, David chooses to remain mum in hopes that his wife will "work things out" and resume her life as wife and mother. David's doubts and anger manifest themselves as an imaginary friend in the guise of Leary's Slater, who hangs around the Hurst household offering chauvinistic advice. The Slater hallucination has no doubt that Dana is cheating, and he mercilessly chastises her in a funny, Leary sort of way.

The comedy and fantasy of Dentists are sometimes sweet relief, because Rudolph and company's dramatic depiction of a marriage in severe trouble would be a little tough to take in a straight shot. In the film's final act, Rudolph stages a sort of Vomit Opera as the Hurst clan battles the stomach flu for five horrifying days. Scott's acting during this stretch as a man staying strong in the face of infidelity, children's misery and buckets of bile is extremely powerful.

Scott, the talented actor who made last year's Roger Dodger almost worth watching, gets the great role in David that has eluded him in the nearly 20 years he's been acting on film. While Leary is mostly required to be his wisecracking self, he is afforded a few moments of sensitivity and gravity that suggest he is ripe for a role more dramatic in nature. Davis is simply one of the best actresses working today, fantastic in last year's About Schmidt and equally terrific here as the confused wife not so good at concealing secrets.

At times, the film becomes a bit too clever for its own good. While some of the fantasy sequences are quite effective (David imagines an innocent family trip to the house of Dana's alleged lover as she drops by for a quickie), others don't get the laughs being sought. While most of the fantasies offer sly wit, they are sometimes an unwelcome distraction.

The resulting film is the best of Rudolph's checkered career. The Secret Lives of Dentists can be mighty painful, like a steel tool hitting an exposed nerve, but the occasional dispensation of laughing gas should get you through.

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