Secret Lives of Dentists, The

Like so many feminist texts, Alan Rudolph’s The Secret Lives of Dentists (written by Craig Lucas) belongs, for all its pretense of gritty realism, to the genre of fantasy. There are paranoid feminist fantasies (The Handmaid’s Tale, Double Jeopardy) and then there are the much more numerous wish-fulfilment fantasies like this one. But Jane Smiley, who wrote the novella (The Age of Grief) on which it is based, does not go in for the cruder sorts of power fantasies like Legally Blonde or Charlie’s Angels. Her dream is not to take down men twice her size with the well-aimed kick of a shapely leg but rather to imagine the perfect husband to cheat on.

The dentists of the title are two: Dana (Hope Davis) and Dave (Campbell Scott). Dana and Dave the dentists are married to each other, with three young daughters, and are also partners in a dental practice. Their secrets are two too. The she-dentist’s secret is that she’s having an affair. The he-dentist’s secret is that, after he begins to suspect his wife of unfaithfulness, he has long conversations with an imaginary friend, who takes the form of an obnoxious dental patient called Slater (Denis Leary). In spite of the title’s plural form, however, we only get to know about Dave’s secret. Dana’s remains, well, a secret. We’re not even sure whether or not she is having an affair until the end.

As if to make up for this secretiveness, the authors give us to understand that Dave’s secret also has a secret which they are going to let us in on. It is that the imaginary friend stands for all those old-fashioned, atavistic male reactions to the news that his woman is a-cheating on him which he feels he ought to have but doesn’t have. A trumpet player with serious periodontal disease, Slater takes advantage of Mr Leary’s type-casting as a boorish lout to become the voice of outraged masculinity, urging Mr Scott’s character at one point even to kill his wife. The film is all about Dave’s ultimately successful efforts to boot this Neanderthal out of his life — we actually see him with suitcase and trumpet sadly leaving the house and parking himself at a bus stop — and become the good little wittol that the film’s feminist inspiration intends him to be.

“I don’t want to know who it is; I don’t want to know what you did,” he says to Dana when she returns from a night away from home and seems indisposed to explanations. But his getting the better of his lower nature is obviously a rebuke to the imaginary Slater, who shakes his head in disgust and leaves.

The film’s toothy metaphors don’t quite work, and it is straining after effect to say the least for Dave to tell us in voiceover that our teeth are “two little rows of stones in the flesh but sensitive as lips. Impossible, like marriage, but there they are.” But dentistry does serve as a means of bringing up both decay and permanence, and the rather feminine emphasis on hygiene and good health that Dave can share with Dana also sets him apart from the untidy and untamed masculinity of Slater, the man with the bad teeth and gums.

The daughters, though cute, really have nothing to do but to complete the sense of Dave’s envelopment by femininity. “So you’re kind of like the mommy here,” imaginary Slater taunts him. “You do the washing and the sewing, teach ‘em about make-up and stuff? How to use a barrette?” As usual, Dave is confident enough in his masculinity not to have to respond to such locker-room challenges. He’s too proud to fight. He can’t even imagine kicking Dana out of the house — or rather his fantasy of doing so only makes clear the absurdity of the idea. “A person can think anything they want,” he patiently instructs one of the daughters who is going through a “phase” of hitting people. “But you mustn’t act on it.”

In other words, he is kind of like the mommy here. It has traditionally been the mommy who has to suck it up and forgive. Here we have mommy’s revenge fantasy as she does act on it, leaving daddy to teach the formerly feminine virtues of submissiveness and forbearance. Talk about your chick flicks!

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