'Dentists' drills under surface

The movie business reveals a lot about itself by the titles it chooses.

Alan Rudolph's new picture is based on a novella by Jane Smiley called "The Age of Grief," but there's no way Hollywood would keep that name. Who wants to see a movie about "age," and if "grief" isn't a turnoff, what is?

Ms. Smiley's novella is a serious work of fiction, and Mr. Rudolph has turned it into a serious film, but that doesn't mean it needs downbeat words on the poster and marquee. So the perfectly titled Smiley tale became "The Secret Lives of Dentists," which makes the picture sound more like a sniggering comedy than the thoughtful story it actually is.

Yet it's not a bad title at that. As adapted for the screen by Craig Lucas, with reasonable fidelity to Smiley's beautifully written novella, the film is indeed about dentists - two of them, a husband and wife. And it does look at aspects of their lives that are hidden from almost everyone, including each other.

The wife, Dana, may be having an affair so secret that her husband can't be certain it's happening at all. The husband, David, is still desperately in love with her. But he can't help recognizing the sad, inescapable fact that a lovable wife, three lively kids, professional success, and money to spare add up to much less than the picture-perfect existence for which he has worked so hard.

Their marriage reaches a crisis when an illness passes through the household, exhausting both parents and increasing the odds that they'll have to face the shared emotional dilemmas they've been trying for so long to ignore.

Mr. Rudolph's filmmaking career has been wildly uneven, swinging from the heights of "Afterglow" to the depths of "Breakfast of Champions" and all points in between. "The Secret Lives of Dentists" ranks with the best work he's ever done, taking an unlikely metaphor - a marriage is like a set of teeth, never perfect but almost indestructible if tended with loving care - and making it the foundation for a smart, sensitive look at modern domestic life.

Rudolph benefits greatly from excellent acting. Campbell Scott, steadily emerging as one of today's most creative and energetic actors, manages the difficult role of David - full of contradictory emotions and interior monologues - with skill and sensitivity.

The busy Hope Davis, who's also splendid in the forthcoming "American Splendor," does similar wonders as Dana, making her a woman of mystery and a down-to-earth mom at the same time. The girls who play their three daughters are as gifted as child actors get.

"Secret Lives" is no more flawless than the average mouthful of molars and bicuspids. In a dubious decision, Rudolph and screenwriter Lucas have taken a minor device in Smiley's novella - David's imaginary friendship with a rude, crude patient whose unattractive traits are also present in himself - and made it into a darkly comical gimmick that runs through most of the movie. This would seem overdone even if Denis Leary's performance didn't have a brash overstatement that's refreshingly absent from other aspects of the film.

That aside, "Secret Lives" is one of the best pictures so far this year, marking a high point of Rudolph's career and reconfirming the extraordinary talent Mr. Campbell has shown in earlier films. Dentistry will never seem the same.

Rated R; contains sex and vulgar language.

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