There is nothing noble about caring for a demented relative. There is nothing inherently humorous in the decision over whether or not to warehouse said elderly family member. While it may ease your moral compass to find a fancy (and expensive) assisted living facility, the reality is much less mechanical. There’s a crucial line in Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages that does indeed resonate within such a situation. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, playing the sensible brother to Laura Linney’s angst-driven Annie Hall type, argues that high end does not necessarily mean the best care. “This is all for you”, he complains, pointing to a brochure loaded with color photos and various amenities. “None of this is for Dad. It’s all here to assuage your guilt.”
Indeed. While it manages to skirt the logistical issues involved in dealing with the diminished capacity of a loved one, Jenkins seems to think that she has the emotional issues all worked out. Using Hoffman’s quiet resolve as a contrast to Linney’s over the top tendencies, she fully believes The Savages showcases reality in all its whiny warts and all element. She’s wrong. 100% wrong. In fact, the key difference about this 114 minute movie and the real world is that after the running time has elapsed, everything’s resolved. Traumas have been aired out, problems dissected and shuffled successfully back into life’s loaded deck. Of course, in reality, it never ends.
Over the last eight weeks, my family has been going through a Savages like crisis. It began innocently enough with a phone call - an aunt who typically doesn’t stay in touch dialed to say that she couldn’t get my wife’s 96 year old grandmother to answer her numerous rings. The old woman had lived alone for nearly 31 years, and even nearing 100, she showed no signs of age-oriented complaints. The relative wondered if everything was okay. After all, she did hear that the nonagenarian had been in a car accident the Saturday before. Yet after a quick visit to the ER, she was treated and released with a clean bill of health. Everyone had noticed that her hearing had diminished over the years, and Grandmother frequently failed to respond to the phone’s ring. But this latest turn seemed odd - perhaps, even sinister.
My wife, sainted beyond the beatitudes of even the most liberal Pope, decided to find out what was going on. She grabbed her mother, got in the car, and drove to her grandmother’s house. An hour later, she returned with rather dire news. “We knocked and knocked. I called from the cellphone dozens of times. We yelled and yelled.” She didn’t have a key, so she couldn’t actually go in, but from what she could see on the outside, things did not look promising. There were no lights on inside the house, and from what she could decipher, the front room (dining and kitchen area) looked virtually unused.
At this point conjecture took over. Maybe she wasn’t released from the hospital after all. Maybe she was still in a room, being treated. We later learned that another aunt had fractured her pelvis in four places during the same accident. Maybe Grandmother was visiting her. Whatever the scenario, someone with access had to be contacted. We finally found my wife’s uncle, the man married to the injured aunt. He had a key to the house - but after learning what had been discovered, he didn’t want to go in alone. My wife and I jumped back in the car and drove over to the house to meet him.
Lots of things run through your head at this time - scenes from movies where bodies are discovered, corpses rotting with cops clamoring for clues only to realize the suspect has suddenly turned into a victim. You play out all your reactions at one time - the smell, the scene, the realization of death in all its unavoidable physicality right before you. You then prepare. As the trip nears its end, you wonder what you will truly do. The flesh may be willing, but the spirit is, at present, spooked pretty good.
When we arrived, the uncle was standing in the driveway. He bore the look of anyone faced with the potential of finding their mother-in-law deceased and decaying. There was a quiet exchange of words, a tentative placing of metal into a lock, and with the swing of a door, the three of us entered. It was funny - the first thing anyone heard was the collected sniffing of all our noses. Clearly, we were going for the aroma-based means of discovery. Nothing. The house smelled…like a house. Quickly, absolute silence was maintained. My wife called out. No response. She called again.
Faintly, from far away, we could hear a very weak voice. To make a long story short, we discovered Grandmother lying on the floor, the clichéd commercial tagline of “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” playing in the back of our mind. She was alert but highly confused, thinking she was still in bed instead of splayed upon her vanity floor. Paramedics were called, assistance was attempted (she was disoriented but still very stubborn), and neighbors started nosing into everyone’s business. By the time we got her to the hospital, the concept was already out there - what do we do now? Where do we put this 96 year old woman once the doctors determine her condition?
That was indeed eight weeks ago. Since then, there have been conversations, arguments, arrangements, and agreements over Grandmother’s care. One son immediately suggested a nursing home. One daughter demanded she be sent back home. Assisted living became the equalizer, and it was here where art didn’t do what it’s supposed to. Instead of imitating life, it totally disintegrated it. If you believe The Savages, a few confrontations and a couple of clever bon mots later, and all your old people problems are wrapped up in an ironic package of self-examination and satisfaction. While writer/director Jenkins may indeed be right about how such a situation reflects on who you are inside, it doesn’t begin to address the deep-seeded sentiments that drive families to fight over what to do.
Dementia, or as the medicos mandate, “diminished capacity” contains a lot of loopholes that The Savages failed to address. When Phillip Bosco’s father figure smears feces on the wall, it’s nothing more than shorthand for what’s really going on. His moments of lucidity are often played for pathos, yet when a lost relative actually returns to reality, be it ever so briefly, it’s not a sad situation. In fact, many in the family view it as a ray of recognizable hope in an otherwise bleak personal landscape. The Savages does get one thing right - everyone involved has a desperate desire to see things turn back to some sort of normalcy. If Grandmother required a couple of minutes contemplation during the course of your week, her mental reconfiguration should keep to that schedule as well.
But what Jenkins completely forgets is how all encompassing these issues really are. Granted, in her film, the brother and sister had long since ceased contact with their father, a relationship with a woman in Arizona providing the locational limits. But once the mind has been marred, and the need for care is concluded, nothing can reestablish the borders. Over these last few weeks, Grandmother has gotten stronger. She’s fallen and broken her hip, but the surgery turned out to be a godsend. It fixed a badly arthritic bone, allowing a titanium rod to reestablish her physical dexterity. According to her doctor, she’s very strong and heals miraculously well.
But concern has now stopped centering on her body (though the frequent stays in post-hospital rehab try to dictate otherwise). Instead, everyone is nervous over her growing disconnect with the truth. The more wistful want to believe that she will find a way back to our world. She recognizes faces quickly, and can carry on a conversation with ease. But then the disquieting comments start. She believes she is on vacation. She thinks nurses are out to kill her. She wants her husband, dead for over three decades, to return from a business trip and pick her up. She argues over the location of her wallet and purse, and is concerned about where she parked her car - though she hasn’t driven in over 10 years. It seems funny at first, the brain burbling in ways that suggest senility crossed with sitcom crankiness.
Of course, it soon turns trying. One of the things The Savages fails to fully explore (among many, mind you) is the cloud that crazy actually forms. For those emotionally involved, the lack of a clear connection to what’s going on is devastating. It’s like being told your parent or loved one is dead without getting a chance to grieve over the body. Instead, you must visit the wake every single day, screwing up the courage to see the once familiar family member stripped of what made them a viable member of the clan in the first place. Imagine how horrific it must be for a mother not to recognize their own daughter. Now reserve the perspective and see how well you sleep at night.
Oddly enough, none of this is remotely funny - at least not in the traditional sense. There can be some moments of groan-inducing gallows humor, and a bit of black comedy. But nothing about this circumstance screams laughter. Nothing about it is intentionally humorous. Instead, you chuckle to yourself over your reactions, for your approach and how life rebuffs you. You snicker under your breath as relatives wax poetic, though the last time they saw the subject of their verse was so long ago the blips seem buried in nostalgia. Jokes usually get the cold shoulder, or the critical eye. Everything is just too intense, too raw.
I had seen The Savages, several months before the Grandmother issue occurred. Back then, I found it self indulgent, petulant, and relatively unrealistic. When my own father faded and died, none of the clearly written quips found in Jenkins’ dialogue made it into my family’s conversation. There was no Rodney Dangerfield like one-liner about putting Pop in the garage since company was coming over. This latest bout with aging and mental atrophy didn’t rewrite my opinion of the film. Instead, what the real world makes abundantly clear is that fiction fails to fully capture much of its numbness, or nuances.
Drama is never as ‘melo’ as in your own life, and sadness sinks lower than any character’s confrontation with themselves. Some may celebrate what The Savages managed to make out of a ‘relatively’ shitty situation, but there is a truth that remains legitimately lacking. Movies based in actual events are supposed to provide insight. They’re supposed to provide guidance where personal bias blinds us. In this case, the movie pre-grandparental issues seemed specious at best. Now, they’re just downright ridiculous.