Campbell Scott creates a new movie anti-hero - the weak silent type - and goes all the way with it in The Secret Lives of Dentists. He's the unique center of a deliciously tender black comedy about husband-and-wife dentists who learn that a neat suburban office, three daughters and two homes (one in the country) can't cushion them from pain.
Scott's character realizes that his spouse (Hope Davis) has taken a lover but fears that confrontation will lead to an irrevocable rupture. So he waits for the end of the affair and tends to the three girls. Their hearts, anyway, belong to daddy.
In this film, Scott proves to be as great a master of evasion as he was a predatory motor-mouth in last year's Roger Dodger. His posture illustrates the anatomy of melancholy, his eyes droop, and his voice oozes educated disappointment. But his performance never becomes sloppy or loses definition. His behavior is in turn appalling and touching.
By the end you see the wisdom of his cowardice. In screenwriter Craig Lucas' and director Alan Rudolph's keen-eared, visually nimble adaptation of Jane Smiley's original novella, The Age of Grief (the most insightful and entertaining work of hers I've read), a man who hides behind opaque expressions and silence, hoping for an affair to fall apart and for his marriage's core of good humor to reassert itself, flies in the face of psychological Mr. Fix-its like Dr. Phil. It's enough to make you cheer. Quietly.
The comic foil crucial to this act of passive daring is Denis Leary's gleeful, bent embodiment of a nightmare patient. In reality he's just a trumpet player who blares out masculine rage and sexual aggression every time he opens his mouth - even when he's in the dentist's chair.
Jumping off from several juicy passages in Smiley's story, writer Lucas turns him into three or four things at once: the protagonist's imaginary friend, devil's advocate, erupting id and alter ego. Though most of the time only the dentist and the audience can see him, the script places the trumpeter smack in the center of the action. That fireball Leary makes him an indelible presence. He's so full of teeth-gnashing vitality, and so startling in his fierce verbal attack, that he's a welcome surprise even when he's irritating - and even when he's close to becoming ubiquitous.
It's too bad that Lucas couldn't contrive an equally strong and evocative device to limn Scott's nonstop imaginings of the ups and downs of his wife's illicit passion. (A vision of her having a mini-orgy in the office is unfunny and jarring.) Davis is so deft, so vibrant that you know why Scott would cling to her even when she subtly puts him down or shrugs him off. But the balance is tilted and a bit thin.
Yet why carp about a movie that contains a slashing duo like Scott and Leary and some of the sharpest domestic interplay since Alan Parker's brilliant Shoot the Moon? Scott, who co-produced The Secret Lives of Dentists, chose Rudolph to direct - but made sure that Rudolph would stick to the screenplay as written. The last Rudolph film I enjoyed, 1984's Songwriter, was also one in which he shot the script. Freed of the burden of being an auteur, Rudolph applies his varied skills to maximizing emotionally rich scenes.
In the pivotal sequence when Scott discovers Davis embracing a man backstage at a one-night local performance of Verdi's Nabucco (she sings in the chorus), Rudolph successfully juggles the opera, and Leary's real and fantasy appearances, with flashbacks of the couple's happier times. Employing seamless craft here and throughout, Rudolph makes you comprehend everything going on inside Scott's head. His version of The Age of Grief gives you an hour or more of aesthetic bliss.
Secret Lives of Dentists
Starring Campbell Scott, Hope Davis and Denis Leary
Directed by Alan Rudolph
Released by Manhattan Pictures
Time 104 minutes
SUN SCORE ***