New movie finds humor in dental stereotypes

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Dentist: "I'm a doctor!"

M.D.: "Yeah, you said that several times last night. But you're actually a dentist."


Dialogue like that becomes a running joke in the movie "The Hangover," June's box office smash featuring three buddies who have blacked out an uproarious bachelor party in Las Vegas.

Henpecked and passive, dentist Stuart Price -- played by Ed Helms (Andy in the U.S. television series "The Office," for those who follow prime-time TV) -- quickly emerges as the straight man. His conservatism contrasts with the suave calm of the groom (Justin Bartha), the reckless dash of the groom's other best friend Phil (Bradley Cooper), and the whimsical idiocy of the groom's brother-in-law-to-be (Zach Galifianakis).

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Actor Ed Helms' real-life dentist removed a right lateral incisor implant from the actor
after "The Hangover" film crew decided that blacking out a tooth just wasn't realistic enough.
And over and over, the film pokes fun at Dr. Price for his seeming second-class status in the hierarchy of healthcare practitioners.

It's only the latest installment in a long tradition of cinematic dentist bashing. In a list compiled by Edward Thibodeau, D.M.D., Ph.D., and Lauren Mentasti for a 2007 essay (Journal of the American Dental Association [JADA], May 2007, Vol. 138:5, pp. 656-660), dentists appeared in 130 movies going back to the beginning of the 20th century. Eighty of these were comedies, and dentists appeared as sadistic, incompetent, or both in almost all the films.

Charlie Chaplin lampooned a dentist in 1919's "Laffing Gas." And then there was W.C. Fields in 1932's "The Dentist," wrestling with a patient who wrapped her legs around him as he struggled to pull a tooth. In 1976 came Lawrence Olivier's unforgettable dentist-as-torturer in "Marathon Man." A dentist is the bad guy in 2003's "Finding Nemo" as well.

It's not hard to guess at the origins of these stereotypes. At the beginning of the last century, most people still associated dental procedures with pain, and the blunt force required for extracting a tooth contrasted what was typically demanded of medical doctors.

But as Eric Curtis, D.D.S., noted in a response to the Dr. Thibodeau and Mentasti's essay (JADA, September 2007, Vol. 138:9, pp. 1190-1191), more positive images have emerged recently. Maybe that's a result of improved pain control and the new emphasis on prevention.

Examples include "Cast Away," the 2000 movie in which the girlfriend of Tom Hanks' marooned character seeks security by marrying an endodontist.

The misanthropic protagonist of last year's "Ghost Town" was a dentist, too. But the character (played by Ricky Gervais) offered nuance -- and even the possibility of redemption.

Dr. Price in "The Hangover" gets a promise of salvation, too. (Warning: If you're planning to see the movie and don't want any surprises ruined, stop reading here.)

At first, he appears pathetically submissive. When Bartha's groom character chastises him for wanting to marry a woman who has beaten him, he responds, "That was only twice, and I was out of line."

Challenged to prove his skill at dentistry during a drunken binge, he pulls his own tooth with a pair of pliers. (In an amusing dental side note, Helms' real-life dentist removed a right lateral incisor implant from the actor after the film crew decided that blacking out a tooth just wasn't realistic enough. Helms got the implant as a teenager when his permanent tooth didn't erupt.)

Again and again, the other characters in the movie remind Dr. Price that he's "not a doctor." In a hospital scene, dental and medical stereotypes come face to face as Dr. Price confronts an arrogant medical doctor who is so insensitive to his patients' privacy that he performs a rectal exam on an elderly patient while chatting with three visitors. The doctor makes it perfectly clear he won't accept a dentist as his peer.

But Dr. Price's profession is not without its attractions. Of the three main characters, only Dr. Price makes a conquest during their wild night in Las Vegas; a stripper is so attracted by his gentle manner -- and financial stability -- that she marries him on the spot.

By the end, Dr. Price recovers both his backbone and his incisor, presaging hope for his future -- if not the future of all movie dentists.

Copyright © 2009

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