starring Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, James Urbaniak, Harvey Pekar
screenplay by Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini, based on the comics by Harvey Pekar & Joyce Brabner
directed by Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini
THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS
starring Campbell Scott, Hope Davis, Denis Leary, Robin Tunney
screenplay by Craig Lucas, based on the novella The Age of Grief by Jane Smiley
directed by Alan Rudolph
by Walter Chaw The same between American Splendor and Ghost World is that both have middle-aged outcasts as protagonists who each collect old blues 78's, that both were adapted from comic books, and that there's a bus stop in Cleveland. The difference between American Splendor and Ghost World is that with two solitary figures in search of completion, there is the possibility for recognition of sameness--but with two figures (underground comic book writer Harvey Pekar and his wife Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis)) who have found in one another a sympathetic orbit, a partner in life and lo, with a child dropped willy-nilly into their midst to tie up loose ends, there is instead a sort of alien, island of lost toys exclusion that makes for a further alienation of the very alienated audience to which Pekar's comic so appealed and, eventually, took for granted and pandered. The difference between American Splendor and Ghost World is that one is in love with its contrivance and the other is in love with its melancholy.
Paul Giamatti is trying to draw attention to himself and his performance in a way that isn't so much method as cartoon--which of course serves the basics of the film in which he finds himself, and with a wink, but doesn't do much of a damn in terms of creating emotional connection with an audience aching for some kind of familiarity. A professional stand-up comedian at one time, Giamatti is Jim Carrey doing Andy Kaufman--geez, that's good, can you do Henry Kissinger? And there is a kind of hateful doublespeak embedded in the credits when after Giamatti and Davis are recognized (again) as Harvey and Joyce, Harvey and Joyce receive credits as "Real Harvey" and "Real Joyce" (and Donal Logue as "Stage Actor Harvey" and Molly Shannon as "Stage Actor Joyce")--a rhyme of a line in the film where Giamatti (as "fake" Harvey, I guess) voice-overs: "It's weird seeing your life on stage--I can only imagine how I'll feel when I see this movie."
I mean, first, it's not even his life, it's the cantankerous pessimism distilled from his life into comic book form designed for self-aggrandizement, benighted fame, and frustrated fortune. Second, this sort of thing was actually done better in Final Chapter: Walking Tall: no great shakes as a film, but considerably more respectful of its audience and the medium. The story of two-by-four-wielding lawman Buford Pusser, portrayed in the first two films by Joe Don Baker, and in this last film by Bo Svenson, selling his story to the movies and traveling to the big city to see it ("it" being scenes from the first Walking Tall), possesses a degree of care and affection for the allure and the thrill of fame, however lugubrious and clumsy, that trumps American Splendor's superior air. At the least, Final Chapter: Walking Tall doesn't wink at us with credits of "Fake Pusser" drawing so much attention to the created nature of itself, this hollow flickering simulacrum, mocking that you ever should have trusted in the first place.
After all, if you believed in Pekar, you'd be missing the point that American Splendor is masturbation--and the picture hasn't earned the right to be believed in. It disdains our trust and so we should disdain it in return rather than praise its assessment of us and of this medium in which it deigns to exist. The problem with American Splendor is the problem with post-modernism in that at the end of post-modernism is the destruction of the scrutinized; without a strong centre, post-modernist pieces tend to fly apart at the seams, and cartoonist-cum-file clerk Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) is nobody's idea of a strong centre. Joyce tells us that the comic became far more bitter than Pekar himself--that the observations became less honest over time as Pekar's life sorted itself as well as could be expected for an odd bird like Pekar, while Pekar perceived his audience as too puerile to accept anything other than the quiet desperation of the comic book Pekar. Pekar seems uncomfortable with his wife's confession, for it suggests that Pekar doesn't think much of his readers.
What is a film when it isn't a film and, indeed, hates film? In an essay about The Wizard of Oz called "Out of Kansas," exiled author Salmon Rushdie makes an amazing observation about a studio still he's seen, taken of the stunt doubles, the stand-ins for our mythopoetic quartet: "There they stand, Nathanael West's locusts, the ultimate wannabes... Stand-ins know their fate: They know we don't want to admit their existence... The part of us that has suspended disbelief insists on seeing the stars... thus the stand-ins are rendered invisible even when they are in full view." So American Splendor is a fiction of phantoms--worse, it's a murder of lies with the artificers and sorcerer's apprentices (the director/writer team of Shari Springer Bergman and Robert Pulcini) intruding in voice and in fact.
A scene in the first half of the picture sees Fake Harvey and his friend Fake Toby (Judah Friedlander) walk out of their scene and onto a white set, where Real Harvey and Real Toby (Toby Radloff) are being interviewed by The Interviewer (Shari Springer Bergman), forever off-screen like God or the documentary director that she plays in "Real" life, rendering Fake Harvey and Fake Tobey "invisible in full view" as it were--not only here, but for the rest of the picture. For the record, there is also a Real David Letterman and a Fake David Letterman, but the Real David Letterman only appears in archival video spliced with New Archival Video, making him Real David Letterman a long time ago, which is no longer Real David Letterman, probably. Pekar, in recent interviews, expresses that he and Letterman have had a détente since the events depicted in American Splendor, postulating that Letterman, post-bypass, has mellowed--further muddying the pot in terms of Fake and Real. Time: wasting.
There is only one R. Crumb in the piece, and he is played brilliantly by James Urbaniak--R. Crumb stops illustrating for Pekar after just a few issues for reasons never mentioned, which is fair because Pekar is never mentioned in the better film Crumb. R. Crumb is the one truly memorable, genuinely touching character in American Splendor, and I think that's because R. Crumb is real in American Splendor when nothing else is. American Splendor isn't Capturing the Friedmans or Memento--it's too dishonest for either, too amateurish to compare with the scary polish of the former, too determined to manufacture gimmicks to understand how one gimmick can inform all of a film's subterranean surfaces like the latter. Discussing existential conundrums in regards to American Splendor, questions of identity and truth and memory, isn't the point (there's nothing to rake over, American Splendor has raked it all over for us)--the point is to laugh at Giamatti's showy impersonation of Pekar, at how much Davis's neurotic screen persona is exactly like Real Joyce's screen persona, and at how clever the filmmakers are at failing spectacularly to capture what there is to gain from spending time with the two pairs of egomaniacs before the camera, and the one pair behind.
But what if the two solitary figures searching for completion were husband and wife in amiable orbit with every advantage of the middle-class fantasy: beautiful house, another for the weekends, two-and-a-half kids, two-and-a-half cars (one of them is a riding lawnmower), plenty of food, plenty of money, plenty of time--even having the same professions in the same office for goodness sake! Alan Rudolph's The Secret Lives of Dentists, his best film and clearly one of the best films of the year, says they're destined to discover that oribiting is slow falling. Based on a Jane Smiley novella called The Age of Grief, The Secret Lives of Dentists jettisons the things that make Smiley self-congratulatory and country-fried smarmy and retains that thread of melancholy and hopelessness that attracted Campbell Scott to this project over a decade ago. Scott plays one of the titular dentists, Dr. Dave--Hope Davis plays another pitch in her neurotic whine, an octave below Fake Joyce Brabner, half-an-octave above Erin Castleton (Next Stop Wonderland), as Dr. Dave's dentist wife Dr. Dana.
One night just before Dr. Dana performs in a small role in a local production of Verdi's Nabucco after waxing rhapsodic at dinner about the beauty of the "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves" (forgiving the didactic analogy of servitude and emancipation to marriage and infidelity), Dr. Dave spies what he thinks is a tender moment between his wife and another actor, backstage and underground. The significance of its subterranean location not strained, Dr. Dave will struggle for the rest of The Secret Lives of Dentists with whether or not he's actually witnessed a transgression or manufactured a transgression to explain the ripples in his idyllic life. His existential demon is made manifest in the body and voice of his most difficult patient, Slater (Denis Leary), growling, burping, pissing at Dr. Dave's right shoulder--feeding the green-eyed monster with great droughts of bile.
There's something impossible about The Secret Lives of Dentists in that it is a deft, complicated film that trusts its audience to fill in the blanks and weigh ambiguities. Dr. Dave is cold to his wife, but not unloving, amazingly warm towards his children, the youngest of which clings to him like a monkey to a branch, slapping Dr. Dana whenever she ventures near. He has a fantasy about his youngest, not at all inappropriate, in which she says: "Marry me, Daddy. I'll be a woman someday. I'll always be faithful." The screenplay is by playwright Craig Lucas, and it is cobra perfect in delivery and timing--though at least equal credit is due Scott and Davis (and Leary and Robin Tunney, in another brilliant turn as a dental hygienist doing her best to stay out of it). It's hard to dislike Dr. Dana for maybe having an affair on Dr. Dave--he is, remember, cold--but it's hard to feel like Dr. Dave deserves being maybe cuckolded because he's such a decent guy. Campbell Scott has created a being that is as Real and as much a contradiction as every other Real sentient being.
The Secret Lives of Dentists uses The Doves, The The, Jeff Buckley, and Cat Power on its soundtrack to astonishingly good effect. Gary DeMichele's original score--he's twice worked with Stanley Tucci and Scott--blends with the soundtrack in a way that reminds of how agile Rudolph can be with his aural tapestries--different but also birthed from the same mother as the ambient rumble of his mentor Robert Altman. I mention this because that attention to detail manifests itself in a glimpse of the bottom of some pancakes: slightly burned. We put the burn on the plate-side of course, and for as rich as that might be for discussion later, while we watch it just works as something that for all the dream sequences (all the chain-smoking asshole ids) grounds the story in the mendacity and familiar teat of routine--how habitual toil accelerates time to blinding, how the small worries of small people are, to them, all the troubles in the world. The difference between The Secret Lives of Dentists and American Splendor is that the former understands how a gimmick can evolve organically and have sense and weight, and that the latter is patting itself on the back for having Fake Pekar stepping out of a film (but not like in Sherlock Jr. or The Purple Rose of Cairo) and crossing behind Real Pekar on a Real Set of Fake Cleveland, 1970s. What separates American Splendor and The Secret Lives of Dentists is that one is in love with the razzle-dazzle, and the other is in love with the pancakes. Originally published: August 22, 2003.