The Secret Lives of Dentists (2002)

One of a very large stack of movies I picked up because it was cheap and reviews were pretty good to good. I knew essentially nothing about this film when I picked it up, saw that Denis Leary was a supporting actor, figured they were blowing his role up, and it was at most five minutes, but the reviews were good anyway, so I’d just use that as an anchor.

Essentially, this is a little dramedy about two dentists, Dana (Robin Tunney) and Dave (Campbell Scott), who are married with three children, Leah, Stephanie and Elizabeth. It starts off with Dave doing a voiceover about the longevity of teeth, saying that death, fire, acidic soil and so on do little to them, and that what destroys them is life. We see that he’s working on patient Slater (Denis Leary) who constantly complains about prices of dentistry and contradiction between multiple dentists in terms of the quality of work and the like, and how he doesn’t want it to cost much because in five years someone else will simply tell him it was bad work and he’ll need to get it replaced. We then see Dana in the next office, listening to opera and espousing the quality of it, then at home, she continues, and is almost ignored as she tries to sing her favourite part and Dave is trying to get their daughters to behave at the dinner table. Next we see them dropping Leah, the youngest, with a babysitter, lying about whether she will stop screaming, “Daddy!” so that they can go to Dana’s performance.

There, Dave goes into the dressing room to give Dana their daughter’s rabbit’s foot for luck, and he happens to catch her with another man, caressing her face and kissing her. Nothing explicit or clear, but enough that Dave’s mind starts running. From here we spend half the movie in Dave’s head. Throughout her entire performance–between glares from Slater, angry at him for failed dental work–Dave remembers the life he has had with her, all of the good times, with her pregnant, making love, bouncing their first child, pulling her first tooth, and especially bicycling down a hill with her on the handlebars.

From now on, almost every time we see Slater, he is simply a part of Dave’s mind, something like an id, but occasionally a surprising voice of reason. He points out Dave’s occasional role as “mommy” of the family and encourages him to say and ask the things most people always think of saying and asking and then immediately think better of. He encourages and discusses and dissects Dave’s paranoia about Dana’s (possible?) affair, and eggs him on to ask her about it, or to consider whether there is such a thing, and pushes him to angry reactions to smaller things, when he’s vulnerable from the stress under which the thought of this affair is putting him.

The whole film is essentially about her wanting to tell him and him refusing to let her, because he thinks that will let things work out for the best–“If she loves him, then we have to do something.” Robin Tunney is excellent in her part as the wife we see almost purely through Dave’s eyes, not coloured by that, but the only events and reactions we see, by and large, are external. We don’t know for sure whether she’s having an affair, nor why she would be, because we see things from his point of view. We aren’t set against her (despite Slater constantly suggesting outrageous things like killing her) and we feel some sympathy when we see some of her reactions, but Dave’s lack of response due to his own problems is just and familiar, and while we may fault him for not addressing it directly, and for letting himself be so pessimistic and suspicious, we see why this occurs to. So, we have very little image of Dana on the whole, but Robin manages to convey the fact that there is a human being there just as much as there is in Dave, even though we don’t see into her head.

Campbell Scott was absolutely perfect for the role of Dave, as low-key, laidback dentist who really loves his family and puts everything into it, constantly trying to teach things to his daughters and respect them, while occasionally spoiling them too. He has a very standard moustache–which apparently he grew out as a dentist, which seems odd to me, but oh well–that is absolutley perfect for this character. He constantly seems completely sympathetic, but more importantly human. We don’t always agree with his choices, but we don’t see him as inhuman, emotionless, cruel or evil for any of it. We know why he does everything, because we’ve been there. Which is one of the great things about this movie–it feels like the way life can work. No terribly earth-shattering events, though you can get that feeling on occasion, because it doesn’t take an actual earth-shattering event to SEEM like an earth-shattering event in someone’s life.

We also get, through Dave’s mind, the more absurd things he thinks about and imagines, trying to puzzle out who, how and where Dana is having an affair, often by re-writing scenes we’ve seen, or occasionally re-writing them to get a happy ending for himself. They’re all quite entertaining and feel like the way I, at least, tend to think of things.

Best imagined scene by far: Dave ponders how one kicks someone out of the house.

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