David Hurst (Campbell Scott) is a successful dentist, but only in his practice does he care about getting to the root of things. When he accidentally discovers that his wife, Dana (Hope Davis), is having an affair, he doesn’t force the issue or try to find out whom she is involved with. He doesn’t want to begin the process that might end his marriage. The Secret Lives of Dentists, directed by Alan Rudolph and adapted by Craig Lucas from Jane Smiley’s novella The Age of Grief, is refreshingly uncategorizable: It’s somewhere between a marital-discord drama and a mystery thriller, but it also has its madcap moments. David is bewildered by what this adultery stirs up in his head; it brings danger and intrigue into his happily ho-hum existence.
When David imagines Dana, with whom he shares his suburban practice, in the throes of passion with her lovers, it’s not clear whether he is playing out his worst fears or his most clandestine wish fulfillments. David was in awe of Dana when they were dental students together, and she still intimidates him. Perhaps for that reason, he can’t open up to her. (He is much more voluble with his three daughters.) Dentistry is the perfect occupation for David because he doesn’t have to carry on much of a conversation with his patients. Dana, on the other hand, is expansive. When she is given a onetime opportunity to sing in the chorus for a professional production of Verdi’s Nabucco, she cries afterward because she wants to keep on singing it forever. But nothing is what it seems in The Secret Lives of Dentists. In the end, it is David, not Dana, who is the true operatic soul: He tortures himself with rue.
Hope Davis has never been more sensuously alive than she is here. She makes smartness sexy (her specialty). David is maddened by his wife’s indiscretions and yet almost prideful at the same time—her desirability is proof of her worth. Campbell Scott, a virtuoso at bringing out the depth charges in a character’s tics and fidgets, is the perfect actor to play the tightly wound David. When he first becomes aware of the adultery, he seems weak-willed and recessive; we want him to hunt down clues, confront Dana. But gradually, we realize what is at stake for him—not his secret life but his real one—and he gains our sympathy and respect. Rudolph introduces a prickly patient, played by Denis Leary, who becomes David’s angry fantasy alter ego; he vents the things David is too bottled-up to say. But it’s more than enough that we can see into David’s hurt. His unspoken turmoil speaks volumes.
The producing-directing team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory is renowned for stately, upholstered period pieces based on the classics, but their forays into modernity have generally been wan. Le Divorce, based on a Diane Johnson novel and co-written by Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, is set in Paris—or, to be more exact, Paree. There is so little feeling for the actual city that we might as well be looking at a studio backdrop. The footloose Isabel (Kate Hudson) is visiting her pregnant sister, Roxy (Naomi Watts), a poet whose French husband is about to ditch her for a new lover. She refuses to give him a divorce, Isabel takes up with the husband’s rakish politician uncle (Thierry Lhermitte), and a painting in the sisters’ family turns out to be worth millions, setting off a legal battle that brings over the girls’ parents, played by Sam Waterston and Stockard Channing, from Santa Barbara. Filling out the frou-frou is Glenn Close, playing a literary eminence in what looks like a gray fright wig; Leslie Caron, in a wily turn as a matriarch; and Matthew Modine, whose role as a vengeful, gun-wielding cuckold seems to have been airlifted in from a Jerry Bruckheimer thriller. It may be that Merchant Ivory need the armature of the past in order to create a sense of the present. Le Divorce is mustier than any of their movies set back in time.
Disney’s teen-comedy remake Freaky Friday is scrubbed and silly and often enjoyable, largely because of Jamie Lee Curtis. She and Lindsay Lohan play, respectively, a strict mother and a frazzled daughter who find themselves inside each other’s bodies. The fun is in watching Curtis carry on like a ditsy adolescent. The director, Mark Waters, has a light touch in these scenes. When Curtis acts in serious drama, she often seems clamped-down; Freaky Friday gives her the chance to go all goofy and showcase her gift for splayed physical comedy. She may be playing a woman who is inhabited by her daughter, but what comes through is an actress who, for perhaps the first time onscreen, is wholly herself.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: Any movie featuring a quote in its ad from the poet laureate of Great Britain—“Deeply engaging!”—is in trouble. In Masked and Anonymous, Bob Dylan stars as a legendary troubadour named Jack Fate who is headlining a fund-raiser in what looks like a postapocalyptic America in the midst of civil war. The cast includes Jessica Lange, John Goodman, Jeff Bridges, Val Kilmer, Ed Harris (in blackface!), Mickey Rourke, Bruce Dern, Luke Wilson, and Penélope Cruz. They have the satisfaction of knowing that the worst movie of their careers is now behind them. The dialogue is a high-toned meta-philosophical babble I’m tempted to call stream-of-consciousness, except that would be unfair to consciousness. The question we are supposed to be asking ourselves at the end is, where are we as a people? The more obvious question that sprang to mind was, what are these people smoking?
Dylan has not had a happy movie career. Some of us are still scratching our heads over his mumbly role as Alias in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid; and Renaldo and Clara, at nearly five hours, was nearly five hours too long. When he’s performing onstage, his impassivity is all of a piece with his singsong drone—his zombie act has a folkie flair. (The film features eight Dylan numbers—its only consolation.) But as an actor, he looks likes he’s been shot up head to toe with Novocaine. There’s a difference between deadpan and just plain dead. Dylan, under a pseudonym, co-wrote the movie with director Larry Charles, who worked on Seinfeld and obviously believes there is more to life than laughs. Intentional ones, anyway.