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‘Dentists’ works but often feels like a root canal

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THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS — *** — Campbell Scott, Hope Davis, Denis Leary, Robin Tunney, Gianna Beleno, Lydia Jordan, Cassidy Hinkle; rated R (profanity, sex, brief drugs, violence, vulgarity, brief gore); see "Playing at local movie theaters" for theater listings.

"The Secret Lives of Dentists" is at times about as fun as a trip to a real dentist's office. But in the best possible way.

That's to be expected. After all, this adaptation of Jane Smiley's short novel "The Age of Grief" broaches issues that aren't easy to deal with — and they're certainly not always easy for an audience to sit through.

Fortunately, the filmmakers have tried to balance heavy dramatic elements with humorous ones. And while that doesn't always work, the material is just thoughtful enough and the performances just effective enough for the whole thing to work.

The title of this comedy-drama refers to New Yorkers David and Dana Hurst (Campbell Scott and Hope Davis), who aren't just partners in life, they're also partners in their respective dental practices.

After 10 years, the sizzle has gone out of their marriage, which often happens — especially considering that they have three young daughters (Gianna Beleno, Lydia Jordan and Cassidy Hinkle) to take care of. But of late, David's had doubts about his wife's affections.

And thanks to something he thinks he witnessed, now he has doubts about her fidelity as well. (While visiting her backstage at an opera production, he believes he saw her in the arms of another man.)

The mild-mannered Dave is afraid to confront her and possibly discover that his worst fears have come true. But by holding his emotions in check, his frustrations begin to mount, and that's something the girls have been picking up on.

Director Alan Rudolph overuses the fantasy sequences. And sometimes the tone seems a bit light for what's going on here. But without the somewhat comic bits, the film might have been oppressively dark.

As usual, Scott immerses himself in this character (his frustrations seem all too believable). Davis gives yet another terrific performance, although her character is a bit underdeveloped.

In support, Denis Leary provides much-needed levity (both as an actual character, and in the fantasy sequences, playing Dave's tough-talking conscience of sorts), while the three young actresses playing the couple's daughters are impressive in limited screen time.

"The Secret Lives of Dentists" is rated R for occasional use of strong sexual profanity, simulated sex and sexual contact, brief drug content (use of anesthetics and painkillers), violence (fantasy sequences and a temper tantrum), some flatulence humor and brief gore. Running time: 104 minutes.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com