The Secret Lives of Dentists

by francine Hardaway on September 4, 2003

The Secret Lives of Dentists

Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? I saw the movie “The Secret Lives of Dentists” last week. It was at Sundance last winter, but we couldn’t get into it because it was directed by a big name — Alan Rudolph–and had a cast including Campbell Scott, Hope Davis, and Dennis Leary. Those big “Premiere” screenings sell out to people who know more about buying their film packages early than we do. They’re probably really in the “industry.” We’re trying, but we’re still in the audience.

What an unusual movie, in both the good and the bad sense. First the good: Alan Rudolph really understands marriage. The protagonists are a married pair of dentists practicing in the same office. They have three daughters and a home in the country; it’s the perfect life. But of course she’s unhappy. She has been singing in a community opera production, and she has fallen in love with the idea of romance and theatre. She has also, we think (but are never sure), fallen for some guy in the cast.

Her husband suspects her as well. Nothing special; just a few late arrivals home, and mysterious disappearances from the office. He’s the usual one-dimensional guy who never sees anything until it hits him in the face. When it finally does hit him, he makes an interesting choice. He decides to do nothing, despite a voice in his mind that urges him to more and more aggressive action. The voice materializes in the form of a troublesome patient (which is the movie’s weak point).

The dynamic of marriage is explored with crushing realism in this movie. The Hurst family is a two-income, well-educated, professional family struggling with the almost intolerable pressures of every day life. Nothing more unusual happens to them than a family-wide bout with the flu (in which each child and each adult barfs in sequence), but there is an intensity in the quotidian that gradually builds to a climax.

Every time the husband and wife try to have a conversation, they are interrupted by a child with needs. The youngest child spends the entire duration of the film in a stage of “I want my daddy,” rejecting her mother entirely. This forces the troubled father to spend the entire duration of the film with a three year old in his arms. He has neither the time nor the energy to focus on his relationship with his wife by the time he gets through working all day and being the house husband in the evening.

In bed together, there’s a series of missed moments. She tries to talk to him; he avoids the conversation by feigning sleep. He seduces her romantically; she gives in, but is annoyed rather than flattered by his attention. She thinks he only wants sex; he thinks he can win her away from her lover by being more sexual.

Throughout his wife’s dalliance, David Hurst has his strategy. The strategy, carefully thought out, is to avoid saying anything that will provoke confrontation. In conversations with the personified conscience that urges him to act, he rationalizes that anything he says may force action, and any action may destroy the marriage. His goal: save the marriage at all costs, even his own self-respect.

For years I’ve been saying that marriage is the worst format in which to conduct a relationship. “The Secret Lives of Dentists” is really an exploration of my position. Marriages are so fragile — especially today, when women have financial independence — that they can blow apart with one wrong word. And they are like Christmas trees that we try to hang so many ornaments on that they finally bend and break. This movie explores what we can expect out of marriage, and what we cannot.

I’ll spoil the ending for you to make my point. At the end of the movie, the wife finally stays out all one night, leaving the husband baby sitting. He fixes dinner, he gives baths, he tucks his kids in for bed, all without knowing where his wife is, and when or whether she will return.

When she does come home, early the next morning, her husband says only “are you staying or going.” She says only, “I’m staying.” That’s all he needs to know. Life goes on, and the baby goes into a new stage of calling for mommy instead of daddy. It�s a marriage, and they both want to be married. That�s what it takes. You really have to WANT to be married to stay married.

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