Slight Flub

A spineless hero and his thuggish imaginary friend make Alan Rudolph's new film distressingly familiar

When was the last time you said to yourself: "Y'know, what I seek for my viewing pleasure is a boring, obscenely diluted remake of Fight Club set in the fascinating world of dentistry"? Indeed, it is a grave displeasure to announce that stellar director Alan Rudolph (The Moderns) has delivered a very dull movie with The Secret Lives of Dentists. Based on Jane Smiley's novella "The Age of Grief" and starring Campbell Scott as doubtful tooth-tech David and Hope Davis as his perchance-unfaithful wife and dental partner Dana, the project seems vaguely interested in offering insights into American domestic ennui but ends up feeling -- wait for it (yawn) -- like pulling teeth. If you want a movie about average white people eating, driving, vomiting and sleeping, this is literally it, and no more.

As always, it would be nice to read between the lines, to become enchanted by the brilliant subtext...except that there really isn't any. Apart from some snazzy soundtrack music and loads of already-passé bleach-bypass cinematography used to telegraph meaningless flashbacks (and one -- count it, one -- surreal giggle), the movie's single ace is a woefully recycled, dog-eared card. As Slater, an irritable trumpet player who loathes dentists and pretty much everyone else, Denis Leary punches the clock, clad -- hint-hint! -- in Brad Pitt's duds and shades from Fight Club, to inform David that he needs to stop being such a wussy-ass wuss (my term, not his). Although Slater is established as a real person, the movie milks his character's spontaneous appearances and fantasy advice sessions to David for all they're worth, which is about a dime. We've been here before, perhaps with no more depth, but with a lot more punch. This critic didn't think it would be possible to miss David Fincher so much (or at all).

Which isn't to suggest that Rudolph has completely lost his mind or anything. The movie is competent and watchable. But so is the Weather Channel. All we get here by way of a plot is that humble David suspects outgoing Dana of having an affair, most likely after spying her with the overtly cuddly music director for the local opera in which she enthusiastically performs. Thereafter, David meanders through his life being an acceptable-if-flawed father to their three daughters (Gianna Beleno, Lydia Jordan and Cassidy Hinkle) while allowing Leary's leery Slater to coach him, unsuccessfully, on the coarser points of being a complete bastard. The movie starts out with silly philosophical discourse regarding the power of teeth, and it concludes with absolutely no bite. A shame.

This project feels especially tepid given the pumped-up, highly stylized portraits of Middle American neurosis we received last year in the form of One Hour Photo and Secretary. Both were pushy, verging at times on caricature, but ultimately they dug up some of the roots of suburban unhappiness and gave the viewer a sense of discovery: Wow, so maybe that's why my neighbor's a freak! Here the biggest discovery seems to be that American families are foregoing dairy milk for Rice Dream, or possibly that it really sucks when one's kids get sick. (The kids, incidentally, deliver the most convincing performances here; something of an achievement.)

Since this is an Alan Rudolph film, and since his literary liberties like Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle and Breakfast of Champions were so enjoyable, there's an almost desperate desire to find the thematic point of this thing. The closest thing to it seems to be when David and Dana struggle to redefine their marriage, especially as Dana has obviously fallen out of love and David opts for a life of miserable compromise rather than entering the "machine" of divorce and custody and whatnot. Their performances indeed feel real, but this does not make them any less boring.

What's this fascination with dentists anyway? Even this theme is redundant, as we spent plenty of time in the chair with Steve Martin in 2001's iffy Novocaine, which was also about marital infidelity and co-starred Fight Club's Helena Bonham Carter. Perhaps there's some connection there, but it really isn't worth the effort to figure it out. The best thing about Dentists is Denis Leary, and if you want to watch him bugging the shit out of an American family (and vice-versa), skip this and rent The Ref.

 
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