Aging has been a major theme in cinema this year, particularly the effect that aging has on those related to the aging party. Julien Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and Butterfly depicted the entrapment the protagonists father felt as a result oof his advanced age, while Sarah Polley’s Away From Her showed the ravages of Alzheimer’s and the effect it had on the husband of an afflicted woman who stopped remembering him. Tamara Jenkins’ new film The Savages, focuses on the problems a pair of siblings face as their father reaches the end of his life.
The film begins in Sun City, Arizona where an old man named Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) is living with his girlfriend, and fellow senior citizen, Doris Metzger (Rosemary Murphy). Lenny, begins to act out against Metzger’s caretaker (David Zayas), a sign that he has been falling into dementia. At this point the film cuts to New York, where Lenny’s daughter Wendy Savage (Laura Linney) is contacted and informed of her father’s condition. Wendy has been working as a temp while writing plays that don’t get produced. She has been estranged from Lenny, who was not a good father, but her forceful personality makes her want to do something about the situation. Her brother, Jon Savage (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), is less exited to reunite with Lenny I his condition. But, when Doris dies and her family decides to sell her house, they are left with no choice but to find a new home for their father.
The Savages is a dark comedy in the vein of The Squid and the Whale and About Schmidt (whose director, Alexander Payne, executive produces here). The film is about a dysfunctional family, but in a much more cynical way than last year’s Little Miss Sunshine. The two lead characters, Jon and Wendy, are neurotic New York intellectuals who have inflated views of their lives. The film sympathizes with both, but isn’t afraid to show the numerous flaws both characters have.
Wendy, is a neurotic control freak who feels it is her responsibility make everything perfect, even though she has no real control more often than not. She is sleeping with a married man 13 years her elder, but seems to ignore her own guilt in the commencement of this affair. Her key flaw is her inability to see the writing on the wall, she keeps applying for a Guggenheim fellowship even though she’s been rejected eight times, and this inability to face the facts manifests itself in her constant nitpicking about where she can put her father. Laura Linney’s performance is a definite asset to the film, as she brings some real sympathy to a character that would be easy for an audience to hate. She makes this possibly over the top character feel real.
Jon Savage, is almost the opposite, he’s a character that constantly tries to go with the flow. For a while this makes him seem like the voice of reason, a straight man to Wendy’s neuroticism. While Wendy is nitpicking over choosing a nursing home for Lenny, he simply tells her “they all kind of look the same inside.” But it’s soon made clear that he is just as much of a looser as she is and his smug feelings of superiority are generally unfounded, as he brags about only being rejected six times by Guggenheim. This character is not a stretch for Phillip Seymore Hoffman, and his performance here is nothing special, which is not to say it isn’t good. It seems that even when Hoffman is on auto-pilot he’s still pretty good.
The Savages is clearly not a light-hearted film and a simple description of the plot would not lead most people to assume it is a comedy. What’s interesting is that the film does more with the “dramedy” dichotomy than many other projects would. One minute the film is taking dark comedic jabs at these characters, and the net minute it really begins making points about the effects of a dying patriarch on his children. In many ways the film works better as a dark comedy than a sincere drama, but it needs both elements. It doesn’t fully work as either but works pretty well as both.
Tamara Jenkins will never be mistaken for a great visual stylist but that doesn’t really matter for this type of project which, visually speaking, requires only competence; and this film definitely lives up to that modest standard. The cinematography, editing, and art direction are nothing special, but this never really distracts from the overall effort. What Jenkins does excel at is directing actors and bringing everything else together effectively, and that is a reasonable focus for this kind of project.
The Savages is hardly a perfect film, and its biggest flaw is repetition. There are a lot of redundant scenes here that make points that have already been made previously. About midway through the film they were still reestablishing character tendencies that had already been established. While this is a problem, it is not damning if only because these redundant scenes are still very good and usually pretty funny. I was never bored by The Savages, but I recognize that it could have used a little trimming.
If for nothing else, I can recommend The Savages for the solid performances from the leads. After that I’d still recommend it for its interesting character interactions and a handful of very funny moments. Yet still, I can’t say the movie blew me away. There are a lot of bigger and better things in theaters now that are more worth going to now. The Savages is a solid piece of work, but you shouldn’t feel guilty about waiting to see it on DVD.
*** out of four