The Secret Lives of Dentists and American Splendor

hopedavisHope Davis has such a beautiful face, and she uses it expressively even when conveying blank boredom. In the early scenes of The Secret Lives of Dentists, before the movie loses interest in her character and pulls back from Ms. Davis to regard her coldly, cruelly, she has a couple of moments that are awesomely good. A dentist by day and an opera chorister by night, Davis’s Dana Hurst serenades her husband and three daughters with the score to Verdi’s Nabucco. Waltzing through their kitchen, lost in rapture that her family cannot share, Davis sketches this interior state—the place that only music can take us—without making it false. On the morning after a well-received performance, she sobs quietly at a table, wanting still to sing the music and to sing it forever, at that.

Isolating the poetry of these scenes from the mess that the movie soon becomes, I wondered if Craig Lucas (who converted Jane Smiley’s novella into a script) and Alan Rudolph knew what they had, and if they did, what was the rationale to push on with a bankrupt and boring film that resorts to gory fantasy sequences of dental torture, brief bloody blips that suggest Marathon Man refurbished in a Cremaster aesthetic. Secret Lives starts off on equal footing as the story of two married dentists, yet the film shifts—fatally—to orbit around the husband (Campbell Scott) as the wife dissolves from a haunted woman into a cipher. Actually, she becomes worse than a cipher; the filmmakers treat her as an object.

The fantasy scenes gradually duke it out for equal time with the “reality.” The edits become fast and frantic, although the pace remains at the speed of molasses. Denis Leary shows up as an imaginary friend of Scott’s, and the two hold imaginary conservations that last well beyond their welcome. The fantasies, it may not require genius to see, represent a collision of outward respectability with dark, violent inward impulses. They also serve as excuses for desperate gags devoted to a dead squirrel, to vomit, to the aforementioned torture, and to a jazzy, hepcat rendition of “Fever” performed by Leary and assorted dental assistants.

Summing up: The Secret Lives of Dentists is one of the worst movies I have seen in many moons of cinema-gazing. It’s the one to beat for Worst of 2003.

hope2Hope Davis fares markedly better in her other new film American Splendor, a work of art as fecund and innovative as The Secret Lives of Dentists is barren and repulsive. Her trademark blonde hair buried beneath a black wig with severely clipped bangs, Davis disappears into Joyce Brabner, an admirer and eventual third wife of comic book author Harvey Pekar. The movie, a delicate meditation on love and loneliness among the marginalized, offers Davis a slew of plum scenes. Not the least of which finds the focused, protective Brabner so absorbed by her husband’s debut appearance on David Letterman (she watches from a monitor in an NBC green room) that she fails to notice a large, scaly reptile cradled in the arms of a waiting guest who shares the space with her.

paulgAmerican Splendor, nonetheless, rightly belongs to Paul Giamatti as Pekar. In what might be called the role of a lifetime, Giamatti gives a performance of tremendous range. He lets you see the comedy in Pekar’s depressive malaise, the raging intelligence boxed in by a dull career as a hospital file clerk. A master of facial expression and vocal inflection, Giamatti is never more sweetly droll than in scenes where his voice grows hoarse nearly past recall, and you can tell how Pekar wishes he could still scream out. When Pekar encounters a former schoolmate in a bakery, an attractive redhead named Alice who’s become a suburban wife and mother, Giamatti’s superbly pathetic. The pent-up longings of both Pekar (who envies Alice her stability) and the woman (who idealizes Harvey’s freedom to write jazz reviews and comic books) make their chance meeting an indelible moment. This scene might also be a perfect visual counterpart to the jazz ballads (heard throughout the soundtrack) spinning on a forlorn little phonograph in Pekar’s trash-heap apartment.

American Splendor skillfully blends wit and wistfulness, always doing so with that essential virtue: honesty. I laughed a lot; I wept some. Moved back and forth between laughter and tears, I remembered a phrase that the critic John Simon coined to describe just such an intermingling, “rainbows in your eyes.”

The brilliance of the actors notwithstanding, none of this would be possible sans the risk-taking narrative shifts so beautifully realized by co-writer-directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman. While their approach owes something to Annie Hall-era Woody Allen, Pulcini and Berman take a quantum leap forward in incorporating comic book and documentary elements amid their dramatization. Illustrated panels from the pages of the American Splendor series comment on and further along the “live” action. The real-life Pekar, Brabner, and their friend Toby Radloff are on-screen, too, and one of the film’s savviest overlaps shows the actors taking five as they observe the people whom they’re portraying. Judah Friedlander so convincingly impersonates Radloff, the “genuine nerd,” that it’s nigh impossible to tell where the actor and the person leave off or begin.

Would that I had more column space to sing praises for American Splendor, or to quote the Radloff-Pekar exchanges about jellybeans. Suffice to say you’re unlikely to see a new film that’s as rich, heartfelt, human, and as joyful as this. – NPT

Originally published in Vigilance, September 2003.