In The Secret Lives of Dentists, Alan Rudolph treats everyday suburban anxieties with great empathy, not cynicism. In these scenes from a suburban marriage, he pulls off a fascinating high-wire act. Like daydreams, the film’s surrealist fantasies weave their way through the characters’ naturalistic realities, and the resulting emotional sessions are closer to the way humans think, feel, and behave than most films immersed in so-called realism. “I have arrived at the age of grief,” mutters one of the married protagonists when their middle-class life begins to unravel. Indeed, Secret Lives is not ashamed of showing the anxiety in cutting loose from one’s suppressed emotions.
Repressed, intense dentist Dave Hurst (Campbell Scott) shares a practice with his attractive wife Dana (Hope Davis). Their home life is a mess of everyday chaos—they raise three children while trying to balance their careers alongside their desires. Dave’s introspective nature is balanced out by his wife’s free-spiritedness, but he’s always felt an uncompromised love for her, and his harbored suspicions that she’s been unfaithful lead him down a garden path to hell. Poisoned by juvenile fantasies of Dana as a vixen in heat (for all men everywhere), Dave struggles to deal with this new information—and whether a confrontation with his wife will destroy everything they’ve built together throughout the years.
Their domestic lives are painted with care and the results are often funny. Rudolph sets his tone early on by having Dave’s tearful self-pity play out against an operatic backdrop. Dana performs in the chorus of a professional opera company. While she’s onstage performing her amateur soprano theatrics, Dave indulges in his own personal melodrama. Rudolph frames the man in close-up as he weeps quietly in time along with the flush musical orchestration. Dave doesn’t know what to do with these feelings of loss and is soon confronted in Socratic debates by his macho-man Id (Denis Leary, doubling as one of Scott’s more troublesome patients as well as the blustering, wild-man Jiminy Cricket he comes to represent).
Midway through Secret Lives, the drama stops abruptly as a highly contagious flu passes from one family member to another leaving all of them in various stages of pain. The clan comes together in this struggle, and one could argue that Rudolph dwells on this sequence for an exhausting length of time—but the patient viewer might wonder whether he’s really on to something here. The melodrama subsides for a time as everyone grapples with an outside threat—in this case, the flu. In this sequence, Rudolph acknowledges the closeness of family ties, ranging a broad spectrum from annoyance to helplessness to trust.
Rudolph’s brazen idiosyncrasy doesn’t always feel well timed. During the fever sequence, Dave imagines his fetching receptionist (Robin Tunney) appearing as a torch song singer belting out a fantasy version of “Fever” in the living room. The fantasy sequences occasionally drift away from interpretations of Dave’s boyish dreams and into waxen kitsch. While the performances are brilliant all around (Rudolph again shows his gift with actors by discovering fresh nuances in Leary’s signature excitable persona, and does the impossible by tugging a warm performance out of the normally icy Davis), Secret Lives could do with a few less of these stagy philosophical diatribes between Scott and his Id.
What with its sumptuous cinematography (by Florian Ballhaus) and vibrant score (by Gary Demichele), the ever-shifting curiosity of Rudolph’s image constantly swirling its way through a fully realized suburban mise-en-scène, and the perceptive close-ups of actors and their yearning eyes, Secret Lives by default becomes the most fascinating cinematic experience I’ve seen this year. It’s bold and cautious, sexy and chilly. These are the paradoxes of our lives.