film review: The Savages

We’re taking better care of the old man than he did of us.

In this remarkable film, two siblings, short of their goals, come together to take care of their father who suffers from dementia. Wendy [Laura Linney] is an aspiring playwright/temp who’s having an affair with a married guy [I have an MFA! This is ridiculous] and keeps applying for fellowships to support her creative endeavors [fellowships that she’s unqualified for, nor will ever receive]. Her brother, Jon [Philip Seymour Hoffman], lives in Buffalo and teaches philosophy and is an expert on Bertolt Brecht. For years, he has been tolling away on a book about the dramatist. After four years, his Polish girlfriend’s visa has run out and instead of helping her or committing to her, he just drives her to the airport. He cries when she cooks him eggs, but isn’t sure if it could work out between them.

This is another role in which Hoffman can stretch. After his turns as a smarmy, conniving brother in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and as a sarcastic, anti-Bond CIA agent in Charlie Wilson’s War, you could say Hoffman has had quite the year in cinema. I first noticed Linney [and loved her] in the Tales of the City miniseries. Linney [The Nanny Diaries, Breach] chooses unique, layered roles and has been consistently good through the years. Both actors are from New York and are theatrically trained. And both are super talented in basically un-flashy supporting roles or leading roles in independent films that are rarely seen [like this one]. Linney graduated from Brown and then Julliard. Hoffman from New York University. As brother and sister, it’s a joy to watch these pros play off each other. The siblings nearly balance each other out: messy Jon has a laissez-faire attitude; neatnik Wendy constantly stresses.

The stellar screenplay is poignant, biting, smart, and honest. Writer/director Tamara Jenkins [The Slums of Beverly Hills] has a deft eye for the nuances of human frailties, shortcomings and she’s got a lot of the details in there: the “happy” decorations at the rehab facility/nursing home, the lucid moments inter-mixed with confusion, a child’s need to ignore reality and the final acceptance. Some parts were hard for me for two reasons: one, my grandmother had dementia and died in April and two, I worked at a nursing home, where one week someone would be fine and the next not eating or on oxygen. I appreciate that Jenkins could combine humor [an uncomfortable screening of The Jazz Singer] with heartfelt moments [Wendy brings in a lava lamp to spruce up her father’s room]. There’s a purity and humanity to her outlook. Yes, these are pill-popping, dysfunctional and in many ways unlikeable adults but many of their choices and their experiences are relatable. The Savages covers thorny subject matter with originality.

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