Marriage and the Drill, "The Secret Lives of Dentists"

"The Secret Lives of Dentists," is a story of infidelity, the pain just slightly anesthetized with very funny observations about couples, the push and pull of their strange longings, and the effects on them of small children. Directed by Alan Rudolph, it’s a close rendering of Jane Smiley’s short novel "The Age of Grief." Smiley, who won a Pulitzer Prize for "A Thousand Acres," often takes as her beat the imperceptible crumpling of middle-class people and relationships, and so she does here.

Dana and David Durst have been married for eleven years. They are swamped by three children, acres of plastic toys, a joint dental practice, and plenty of middle-class property and debt. Hope Davis plays Dana as steely, smart and intense; lately she’s been passionate about opera, singing the part of a beautiful slave in a local production of Verdi’s "Nabucco." Campbell Scott as Dave is a human version of Homer Simpson’s neighbor Flanders. He’s methodical, straight and encapsulated, but he begins to wonder if music is the only thing that stirs Dana. She’s unaccountably faraway; she’s got prob-lems with getting home on time. When the performance is over, she falls apart, sobbing "I’ll never sing it again." David suspects what this means, if he does not know with whom, and he begins to devote all his energy to making sure he never finds out.

At the same moment, Dave encounters the worst patient of his career. Slater, a trumpet player (Denis Leary), is a bitter, thuggish slob who never sees the dentist until he’s in serious periodontal trouble. He’s just been kicked out by his wife, who nevertheless makes him keep his appointment, and he terrorizes the office staff. As Dave begins to feel the unspoken strain in his marriage, Slater rides on his shoulder like a dark angel. He goes everywhere with Dave, offering a running commentary on Dana’s remoteness, making more and more violent suggestions, shouting the carefully suppressed macho thoughts of the involved, feminist father.

"Secret Lives" preserves Smiley’s sweet but never cute observations of nuclear family meltdown. There’s an oedipal two-year-old who slugs her mother in the face whenever she gets a chance, expressing everyone’s feelings. There’s the perpetual wear and tear of who’ll pick up and who’ll drop off, and who’ll shop and cook, and who will or won’t eat, and who will take the night shift with the toddler. At one point Dana says, "I thought our marriage was going to be like Cinerama, it was going to get wider and wider. But it just gets narrower and narrower." She is exhausted, deliquescing under the every-dayness. Although the couple tries hard to keep bright order on the surface, it’s a mess underneath.

Alan Rudolph and the screenwriters have pulled off the trick of letting us see and sympathize with what’s happening to Dana, but entirely through her husband’s eyes. We know she wants something badly, but we don’t know who or what, and we’re not sure she knows either. The production design deliberately refuses to distract us from this problem. There are no flashy clothes or expensive interiors to envy.

If you haven’t had little kids around the house, you may not think the crisis scene is funny, but it is. Flu levels the family. In my experience, not much is harder than being bone-achingly sick while caring for someone else. Dave gets everyone through the bouts of dramatic vomiting (with commentary by Slater) and if this were a melo-drama, his selflessness would redeem him in Dana’s eyes. It doesn’t.

None of this sounds like comedy, but the irrational love of a whole family for each other can be comic. As a domestic romance, "Secret Lives" is tightly focused, but Smiley takes a broad view of marriage as a problem with no solution. Dave, who likes the methodical nature of dentistry, observes that marriages are like teeth, hard, capable of persisting even after death. But finally they are vulnerable. You can tend to marriages like you tend to teeth. Apply all the white-coated discipline you want: brush, floss, x-ray, fluoridate. Life itself will wear them down.

SUSAN DAVIS teaches at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.

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