Seen at the Movies:

Hope Davis, one of the great undersung performers in contemporary movies, is costarring in two new films—Alan Rudolph’s The Secret Lives of Dentists, and Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor. In the former, she plays the romantically dissatisfied wife of Campbell Scott, with whom she shares a dental practice. Adapted from the Jane Smiley novel The Age of Grief by playwright Craig Lucas, The Secret Lives of Dentists is an odd, subtle tragicomedy about love and marriage and infidelity, and it features wonderfully in-tune work by the two stars. But like many Rudolph pictures, its center of gravity is askew is some not very helpful ways. The story is told through the point of view of Scott’s cuckolded character, but since the husband is not a voluble sort, he is given an alter-ego in the form of rude, unkempt patient Denis Leary, who keeps appearing as a fantasy figure to goad him and give expression to his more unruly feelings. The device is a constant intrusion, and the movie eventually fritters away. Shot in Westchester County, New York by Florian Ballhaus, son of Michael, The Secret Lives of Dentists is nothing special from a visual standpoint. As represented by production designer Ted Glass, the characters’ home and office are just what you’d expect—comfortable, neutrally hued, sterile. Ditto Lisa Marzolf and Amy Westcott’s costumes, though it should be noted that the silly-looking cap worn by Davis in the movie’s poster art is only featured in one flashback scene.

The Secret Lives of Dentists

. Photo: Manhattan Pictures International

The cap is question has nothing on the black fright wig Davis wears in American Splendor, which is even more droll than The Secret Lives of Dentists. It’s the story of Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti), Cleveland file clerk and perennially cranky author of the title comic book, which has often been illustrated by R. Crumb (played here by James Urbaniak). Davis is Harvey’s itchy, scratchy soulmate Joyce, and she establishes a great rapport with Giamatti, who has found the role of a lifetime in opinionated, pessimistic, and obsessive-compulsive Harvey. Writer-directors Berman and Pulcini distinguish their film by making it a semi-documentary, casting the real-life Harvey, Joyce, and Harvey’s seemingly inimitable co-worker Toby Radloff ( who nonetheless is also portrayed by Judah Friedlander) in side-by-side sequences to enhance and comment on the dramatic ones. They also employ archival footage of Harvey in several bizarre appearances on David Letterman, and throw in animated sequences by Gary Leib and John Kuramoto of the title company Twinkle. When cancer rears its head in American Splendor, things threaten to turn grim, but the filmmakers struggle to maintain their lightly eccentric tone. Still, I found the cinematography by Terry Stacey to be more glum than absolutely necessary. Production designer Thérèse DePrez and costume designer Michael Wilkinson do a magnificent job conveying the shambly disorder of Harvey’s existence, from the dark apartment from which nothing is ever discarded to the shapeless, slept-in clothes the protagonist favors.--John Calhoun

American Splendor

. Photo: Fine Line Features

Heard From Uptown: Now at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater is a series called “The Whole Wide World: 50 Years of Widescreen Moviemaking.” This irresistible looking program includes some usual epic suspects like Kubrick’s Spartacus and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it reaches much further than that, encompassing everything from Nicholas Ray’s war drama Bitter Victory and domestic drama Bigger Than Life, to Godard’s Pierrot le Fou, Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It, featuring Jayne Mansfield and a number of 1950s rock acts, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the 1969 James Bond entry starring George Lazenby. Absolutely not to be missed: Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, a superb adaptation of Henry James’ ghost story The Turn of the Screw starring Deborah Kerr, and featuring exquisite black-and-white cinematography by Freddie Francis. For a complete schedule and more information on the series, log on to the Film Society’s website, or call 212-875-5600.--John Calhoun

Seen Off Broadway: It’s been another week of Dead Celebrity Playhouse, with two one-person shows that resurrect two of the most notorious show business figures of the 1950s and 60s. First off is Judy Speaks, at the Ars Nova Theatre, about the star that got away known as Judy Garland. Give this one points for originality: the script, by Mary Birdsong, is based on the notorious audiotapes taken from Garland’s misbegotten attempt at writing an autobiography. Also, Birdsong tries for a certain satiric stylization in certain sequences, such as when she sings“Dear Mr. Gable” to a series of ex-spouses and lovers. But it’s the same old cocktail of gin and bitters, each passage of ripe self-pity followed by another Garland standard. Birdsong, who also stars, is remarkably convincing at times, even managing to convey a measure of Garland’s volatile onstage persona. But overall, the piece is far too maudlin and depressing. What’s missing is Garland’s humor, her ability to make hilarity out of the most hideous twist of fate. I can’t help but feel that Birdsong, a gifted singer and actress, is wasting her time trying to do the impossible here. Anyway, Andrew Baseman has provided her with a sensible, workable backstage setting and Jeff Croiter’s lighting provides the necessary shifts in tone and style. Michael Clark’s projections are rather interesting—they include live replay of the musical numbers, to create the feeling of early 60s TV series—and his sound effects, including Judy’s musical accompaniment, are evocative as well. (Surprisingly, there is no costume design credit). Everything about Judy Speaks is professional, but nobody has made a case for why it should be done at all. Then again, it’s always a novelty to see a woman playing Judy….

Anyway, Judy Speaks is far more interesting than Playing Burton, now at the Irish Repertory. (We will waive for the moment why the Irish Repertory is presenting a show about a Welsh actor.) Mark Jenkins’ script gives us Burton, just after his death, outraged by patronizing obituaries and ready to give his side of the story. Unfortunately, his version is superficial in the extreme, a quick trip through the highlights and low points, including his childhood in Wales, his tutelage by Philip Burton, his early stage successes, the films, the legion of women, the gallons of booze, and, of course, Elizabeth Taylor. Basically, you could get more out of any issue of Modern Screen published between 1962 and 1966. Brian Mallon certainly looks like Burton and manages a fair copy of his speaking voice, but he rushes through some of the script’s most awkward passages (including a bizarre allusion to George Bush, Sr.’s famous “Read My Lips” speech) and pushes too hard to get laughs. At no time does he evoke the gorgeously romantic, ferociously self-hating, magnetic presence that was Richard Burton. Can we get a break from all this theatrical necrophilia and get back to the business of staging real plays?--David Barbour

Playing Burton

. Photo: Rebecca Ferrier