A few years back, a well-acted, well-directed examination of suburban marital and familial distress took home the Best Picture Oscar. If Alan Rudolph's new The Secret Lives of Dentists doesn't match that achievement next spring, it won't be because it isn't every bit the film (or more, really) that American Beauty was, but only because it isn't quite as showy or grandiose.
Adapted from a Jane Smiley novella (titled The Age of Grief), Dentists covers much the same territory as American Beauty, only it's more tightly wound in the scope of characters it takes in, in the acting styles, in its emotional focus and more realistic, tapping into the daily rhythms of ordinary American lives in a manner rarely seen on the big screen.
Indie-identified actors Campbell Scott and Hope Davis play Dave and Dana Hurst, a couple who met in dental school and now share a marriage, a practice, two mortgages, and three daughters. There's an unease to this seemingly happy couple that's apparent early on: Dana has a small role in a community opera and she sings her part around the kitchen table only to find Dave too busy with the kids and the kids too busy with each other to really pay attention. Later, at the performance, Dave catches a glimpse of Dana sharing a warm embrace and kiss with another man backstage.
There are two different "secret lives" in this film: There's the affair Dana may or may not be having, which happens offscreen, and there's Dave's interior life, which drives the film. We get Dave's flashback memories of his and Dana's relationship (school, work, home, kids, sex ) and his comic-nightmare fantasy projections of Dana's potential illicit behavior. But most prominently we get Dave's interior monologue, a facet of the novella converted to the screen not through voiceover but through the insertion of an extra character Slater (Denis Leary), an unruly patient whose flamboyant anger is the polar opposite of Doctor Dave's repressed dependability. After an early run-in with Slater, Dave begins to imagine him as a devil's advocate, the voice urging Dave to confront Dana about her perceived infidelity when he'd rather ignore it and hope for a return to normalcy. Director Alan Rudolph puts Leary within the same screen space as the rest of the family around the kitchen table, in the family car allowing the viewer to hear Dave's internal struggle in the middle of his everyday family interactions. It's a risky gambit, but it works, Leary's snappy style lending a nice contrast to the coolness of Scott's and Davis' performances.
The home life shown in this film is one of the most realistic and most affecting seen on the big screen in a long time. The Hurst daughters are a remarkably uncute and finely drawn creation, fitting in perfectly with Scott's and Davis' profoundly unsentimental and reserved performances. And precisely because no one in this film is striving too hard for effect, you feel the hard weight of this couple's marital malaise all the more. This is especially true during a long stretch in which the entire family contracts the flu, one at a time (the family doctor had earlier cautioned that one daughter's constant stomach problems were an emotional reaction to parental tension), in a five-day marathon that presents family life as the epic work that it is.
In the end, The Secret Lives of Dentists is perhaps most powerful for its refusal to indulge the kind of hysterics or dramatic plot twists that are so common in films about infidelity or the perception of domesticity as a prison (American Beauty and Unfaithful coming immediately to mind). Rather, this film finds plenty of drama in the pregnant silences, subtle gestures, and daily struggles that mark a marriage in trouble.
I enjoyed our conversation the other day and certainly appreciate you remarking that every time you read one of my reviews, you feel like I am talking directly to you. Would that all of my beloved readership felt the same way. I would feel complete in my avocation as an amateur journalist. Until then, this one's for you, Fred.
I think you would like this new movie Camp. The title has meanings, though. It's about a camp and it's campy. Cute, eh? The camp in question is Camp Ovation a performing-arts camp in upstate New York and refuge for the kind of high school kids I think you would be very familiar with, coming from Germantown High School and its outstanding theater program. Now, at Camp McKee, my own Boy Scout camp, we had very little in the way of the performing arts, aside from scoutmaster-skewering skits and songs like "Do Your Ears Hang Low" to keep us entertained. Camp Ovation produces a new show every two weeks, ranging from Beckett to Bacharach. It's really remarkable.
There's an interesting cross section of teens here, a little different from other teen-sploitation cinema like The Goonies, any Friday the 13th camp movie, or the American Pies. The boys are gay, for the most part. Except for Vlad (Daniel Letterle). Vlad, upon his audition, solicits the following remark from a giddy acting teacher: "An honest-to-God straight boy!" I don't know how things are at Germantown, but this is often a Eureka! moment in high school theater especially when casting a musical like Oklahoma! or West Side Story that requires a certain amount of theatrical machismo. Vlad makes the cut: He plays guitar, rides a skateboard, AND plays football. So he's straight, right?
Also at Camp Ovation: a wannabe drag queen, Michael (Robin de Jesus), meek but fiery Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat), and a Peppermint Patty/Marcy duo in Jill and Fritzi (Alana Allen and Anna Kendrick, respectively). One of the earliest and funniest in-jokes transpires between the arrogant sexpot Jill and the nerdy, intense Fritzi at the bus stop on the way to camp. Jill doesn't remember Fritzi until Fritzi reminds Jill that they had done 'Night, Mother together the year previous. 'Night, Mother is a harrowing one-hour drama with a cast of two. It's insane that Jill wouldn't remember that experience, and such is the subtlety/broadness of the comedy in Camp.
In between zany production numbers and scenes from overly artsy-fartsy performance pieces, Camp tries to be perceptive about what teenagers are going through in their high school years particularly the sensitive, different kind of kids who end up attracted to theater and the safety of its particular haven. This doesn't work so well. The mix of comedy and dramedy is a little bit clunky when making the transition from, say, the hilarious ridiculousness of a 17-year-old white girl belting out "And I Am Telling You" from Dreamgirls to the pathos of young Michael, in his debut as Romeo, noticing that his parents aren't in the audience as promised because his father is ashamed of him. Writer/director Todd Graff just doesn't know how to tell this interesting story. He just tells it.
But Camp's schizophrenia is usually overcome by the charm of good performances and those great, weird musical numbers. That fantastic rendering of "Turkey Lurkey" really made me want to see Promises, Promises. And the unintended, barf-laden duet of "The Ladies Who Lunch" from Company will forever replace Elaine Stritch's as its definitive performance. Also interesting about Camp is Vlad the kind of earnest, fresh-faced young man whom everybody wants and who thinks it's his role in life to make girls (or boys) feel better about themselves by making out with them and then dropping them. The emotional climax of the film involves Vlad getting called out on this and the consequences (or nonconsequences) that befall him. He's not good, he's not bad, he's just nice. In theater and in life, there are many Vlads. And they are infuriating.
So, Fred. We both know Vlads, we both know musical theater, and we both love a good laugh. I liked Camp, as bizarre and inexplicable as its humor is, and I think you will like it too. Unlike Waiting for Guffman, a near-perfect parody of theater that all types can enjoy, this may not appeal to our normal-er friends, but if they would be as excited about an eye-popping cameo by musical-maestro Stephen Sondheim as I was, this is the movie for them. So, say hi to Scotty for me and take him and a bunch of your Germantown High School pals to see this movie.
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