|Laura Linney||Wendy Savage|
|Philip Seymour Hoffman||Jon Savage|
|Philip Bosco||Lenny Savage|
|Directed by||Tamara Jenkins|
Two squabbling, self-absorbed siblings are drawn reluctantly back together to cope with their estranged dad when he starts sliding into senile dementia. That in a nutshell is the setup for Tamara Jenkins’s The Savages. It’s billed as a comedy. You may or may not find much to laugh at. As the British novelist Angela Carter observed, “comedy is tragedy that happens to other people.” Or in Mel Brooks’s formulation, “tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
When Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) starts scrawling messages all over the bathroom with his own feces, the handwriting, as they say, is on the wall. Daughter Wendy (Laura Linney), a fortyish failed playwright and office temp in New York City gets the call from Sun City, Arizona, where her father has been living for the past couple of decades. She calls her older brother Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a professor of drama in Buffalo, NY, and they fly out to fetch the old man and find a place to put him.
This has never been a loving family. The mother disappeared early without a backward glance. Lenny was an oppressive, emotionally abusive father who stunted the growth of his offspring. Jon has grown into a man who is functional in his professional life – he’s a tenured professor and expert on 20th century drama – but his personal life is as untidy as his house and his wardrobe. His girlfriend Kasia (Cara Seymour) is being deported back to Poland, but even though he loves her he can’t make the marriage commitment to keep her in the country. He is writing a book on that icon of dramatic alienation, Bertolt Brecht.
Wendy is even more of a mess. Her affair with a creepy married man (Peter Friedman) seems to be strictly for the sex, which she seems to endure more out of possession than pleasure. She is a perennial also-ran in her serial applications for “a Guggenheim in playwriting; the project on which she is currently pinning her hopes is a subversive, semi-autobiographical play about my childhood, Wake Me When It’s Over.” Her self-esteem is running on fumes. Her most important emotional relationships are with her cat and her plant. She is self-pitying, neurotic, and a habitual liar.
It will come as welcome news to some of us that family does indeed seem to be where they have to take you in when nobody else will. Jon and Wendy collect Lenny and bring him back East. Wendy sentimentalizes, Jon is gruffly practical. Jon finds a nursing home in Buffalo that will take Lenny. Wendy agonizes but goes along. She would like to find a more idyllic retreat. Jon insists their dad wouldn’t know the difference. Wendy tries to personalize his institutional surroundings with touches like a red pillow and a lava lamp.
Lenny is the catalyst, but the movie is about the relationship between the brother and sister. And this is peeled and exposed, layer by layer, by two enormously gifted actors, working with Jenkins’s often insightful screenplay. Linney’s Wendy is appealing and vulnerable, an insecure talent ensnared in the underbrush of her neurosis. Linney plays her as a woman who is sometimes perceptive, sometimes self-delusional. Linney’s character is apt to get stuck with the film’s main weakness, a tendency to get cute at inopportune moments. The party balloon that Wendy brings to the reunion with an estranged and fesces-smearing father in Sun City seems coy in an archly movie-ish way. Hoffman does a spectacular job with Jon, a man trapped in the greatest illusion of all, that he has no illusions. (It is surely no coincidence that the Savage siblings share first names with the Darling brother and sister in J.M. Barrie’s classic of never growing up, Peter Pan).
The grimness of the responsibility of tending to a parent’s dementia and death casts a pall. As trenchant and idiosyncratic as Jenkins’s dialogue is, and as finely tuned as are the performances, the movie never succeeds in finding the lightness of touch it seeks. There are plenty of stabs at comedy, but not many laughs.
Jenkins (whose only other feature was the 1998 Slums of Beverly Hills) has a nice sense of character, and a good eye and ear for the ripples in the pond that lead her characters back to the source of what brought them here. She leaves little doubt that this is substantially autobiographical, even dying the normally blonde Linney brunette to enhance the director’s identification with Wendy. This lends a self-approving awkwardness to a couple of late scenes where Wendy gets praise for her play. She shows it to a nursing home orderly, a wise African (Gbenga Akinnagbe), and when she fishes “You didn’t think it was just a bunch of middle-class whining?” he reassures her that he thought it was excellent. And then she gets a production of the play, and Jon gruffly pronounces it “good – really good.”
There is plenty in The Savages to admire, and sometimes even to like. But ultimately it is all in the service of a depressing situation. It falls short of the involvement that Sarah Polley’s Away From Her (with Oscar contender Julie Christie) established with a similar theme. If you feel the need for a little more senile dementia in you life, that’s the one I recommend.
© Text 2008 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be